How a plastic surgeon created a lasting legacy for the victims of the Bradford City disaster

Plastic surgeon and head of the Plastic Surgery Burns Research Unit,  Ajay Mahajan with Professor Des Tobin, director of the Centre for Skin Sciences.
Plastic surgeon and head of the Plastic Surgery Burns Research Unit, Ajay Mahajan with Professor Des Tobin, director of the Centre for Skin Sciences.
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After treating the victims of the devastating fire, Professor David Sharpe set up a world class centre for medical research. Sarah Freeman reports.

THE AFTERNOON of May 11 had begun like most others at Bradford’s accident and emergency department. By 3pm, as the city’s football club, recently promoted to the second division, kicked off against Lincoln City, the doctors on duty had treated the usual mix of broken bones, suspected cardiac arrests and were gearing up for another busy Saturday night.

Floral tributes at the Valley Parade Fire Memorial

Floral tributes at the Valley Parade Fire Memorial

But then the call came. A fire had broken out at the Valley Parade ground just five minutes before the half-time whistle and as hundreds of fans were being pulled from the blazing, antiquated stand, the team at St Luke’s found themselves on the frontline of treating the injured.

The doctors and nurses were all trained to deal with disaster. They had run through the procedures dozens of times, but nothing could have prepared them for the scale of what they saw that spring afternoon as the ambulances, sirens blaring, began pulling up outside.

Stretcher after stretcher bore the stark reality of the disaster. Some were pensioners. Many were children. All had been trapped by the fire, which later investigations concluded had been caused by a discarded cigarette. Having ignited the years of rubbish which had accumulated underneath the wooden stand, the flames spread rapidly.

It took just a few minutes for the temperature inside the stand to soar and when one of the survivors later spoke of looking down at his hands only to see them “bubbling like melted cheese”, he spoke for many others.

At St Luke’s, the consultant plastic surgeon on call that fateful day was 39 year old David Sharpe. He had been in post for just five months and had first been alerted to the disaster by a telephone call from one of his existing patients who had been at the game.

Travelling from his home he wondered just how desperate the situation could be. It didn’t take long for him to realise that this would be a day none of the hospital’s doctors would ever forget.

As the families of the dead and injured poured into various waiting rooms, desperate to hear news of their loved ones, Prof Sharpe was joined by skilled plastic surgeons from Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester and with four operating theatres up and running he began assessing the victims to ensure the most seriously injured were treated first. By sheer coincidence two dozen anaesthetists had been meeting nearby and hearing of the disaster they had rushed to the hospital, administering fluids and analgesia which in itself saved many lives.

Interviewed numerous times in the aftermath of the disaster, which claimed 56 lives and left many others permanently scarred, Prof Sharpe always played down his role. He was, he said modestly simply part of a team, just doing what he was paid to do. Others saw it differently.

Under his leadership, the surgeons worked around the clock, but with a single operation on a hand taking 90 minutes or more it was both painstaking and delicate work.

As night fell, 20 of the most seriously injured had undergone life-saving surgery. By 7pm the following day the total number of operations had reached 39. In all more than 200 people who had suffered burns mainly to the hands, scalp and the back of legs received treatment and with time of the essence the team had been forced to think on their feet, using acrylic glues and staples to attach vital skin grafts.

It was testament to the skill and dedication of those surgeons that 90 per cent of the injured were discharged within just three to four weeks, but there was to be a longer, lasting legacy of the work which went on inside St Luke’s three decades ago.

Realising their were lessons that could and should be learned from the disaster, in the weeks after the fire Prof Sharpe set up the Plastic Surgery Burns Research Unit. Based at the city’s university its aim was to become a centre of excellence, specialising in research which looks to improve the treatment and healing process of burns victims.

As the footage of the fire was played across the world donations came flooding in, but even today the unit, part of the Centre for Skin Sciences, and its two research fellows are still funded entirely by public donations. Prof Sharpe retired from the PSBRU last December, handing over the reins to Ajay L Mahajan.

“This is not just about Bradford,” says Mr Mahajan. “The research which is carried out here can have an impact on treatment across the country and beyond. The idea was always to make the research we do available to surgeons the world over and that’s one thing we have been really successful at.

“How burns are treated is incredibly important. Patients can be scarred for life and the only way to improve treatment is through rigorous academic research.

“If wounds don’t heal or take a long time to heal that in turn creates a massive burden for the NHS. Lengthy hospital stays are expensive as are painkilling drugs and if we can help people get better quicker then it has a ripple effect right throughout the service.”

Since the centre was set up, 26 specialists have now carried out research programmes and crucially, the vast majority have returned to clinical practice, ensuring that their work doesn’t simply gather dust on university bookshelves.

One of the major breakthroughs has been the work done on the use of hair follicles in the treatment of burns which has been spearheaded by the centre’s director Professor Des Tobin.

“Hair follicles are pretty amazing things because as well as having masses of blood vessels, nerves and fat around them, they are also rich in stem cells,” he says. “We now know that stem cells are crucial in helping skin heal. A wound on the outside of a man’s arm where the hair follicles are more numerous will heal much quicker than the wound on the inside of the arm where there are fewer hair follicles and therefore fewer stem cells.”

Earlier this year to mark the 30th anniversary of the fire, a £300,000 appeal was launched to keep the centre open for another five years and this year, all proceeds from a new stage production, The 56, which pays homage to the disaster by retelling the stories of some of those who were there that day, have also been donated to the PSBRU.

The centre also announced it had adopted a new logo, inspired by the lily of the valley - a May blossoming flower - as its logo.

“This centre and David Sharpe have a special place in the hearts of the people of Bradford and we are constantly surprised and delighted by how generous people are,” says Prof Tobin. “We were created as a direct result of the 1985 and we will be forever linked to the club. May 11 changed a lot of people’s lives in the city and this centre I hope has been a force for good.”


The Yorkshire Post’s coverage of the Bradford City fire anniversary