Stuart Andrew: For the sake of our children, we must save this heart unit

BEFORE being elected to Parliament it was my great privilege to have worked for over seven years at Martin House Children’s Hospice. Although I worked in the fund-raising side, I still had a valuable insight into the wonderful work that they do and the opportunity to meet so many inspiring children and families. This time at the hospice fuelled my interest in paediatric care.

I was delighted in January to have the opportunity to visit the children’s services at Leeds General Infirmary and see for myself the changes which have occurred since the Trust brought all paediatric services under one roof, creating one of the biggest children’s hospitals in the country.

It was during this visit that I first heard about the “Safe and Sustainable” review into children’s heart surgery and the potential effects this could have on children and families in our region. At present, in the UK there are 11 children’s heart surgery units and this review is proposing to reduce this to six or seven specialist hubs undertaking 400 operations a year.

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The review has published four options for consultation and, surprisingly, the Leeds unit features in only one of those options.

If any of the other options are favoured, then the Leeds unit would close, leaving a huge gap in provision from Leicester and Birmingham in the south, to Newcastle in the north and Liverpool to the west. This would mean children from Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and North Lincolnshire having to travel long distances for treatment and parents being put to significant expense to visit.

There is a strong and compelling case for maintaining these services in Leeds. The unit has the capacity to expand and is accessible to nearly 14 million people within two hours’ travelling time, including 5.5 million people in Yorkshire and the Humber – one of the highest population coverages of all the units in England. A fact strangely missed in the review.

The city’s central location within the north enables it to accommodate patients from outside the current catchment area and is served by some of the UK’s major transport links such as the M1, A1, M62 and national rail networks.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the hospital has centralised the whole of its children’s services on one site, which can only help deliver the best expertise in close proximity. In fact the British Congenital Cardiac Association (BCCA) made a statement saying “for these services at each centre to remain sustainable in the long term, co-location of key clinical services on one site is essential”.

Another compelling argument in favour of Leeds.

Furthermore, there are a higher proportion of children from ethnic minorities who are in need of heart surgery and West Yorkshire is predicted to have one of the highest ethnic minority population growths in the country. Future increases in demand for children’s heart surgery services in Leeds can not be overlooked.

But apart from these issues, we need to take account of the human side of the story. I hosted a meeting of clinicians and parents from the unit at Parliament to give them the opportunity to inform myself and my Yorkshire colleagues of the Safe and Sustainable Review.

During this meeting, we heard about how crucial the Leeds unit had been to these parents and, crucially, their children.

Hearing about the urgency of their cases, in one instance a mother describing resuscitating her child on the back seat of their car, was incredibly moving. Reading the comments on the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund website is also both inspiring and challenging. But above all, every parent says that closing Leeds would have caused them significant difficulties due to the increased distances and in many cases could have proved fatal.

It is imperative that we do everything in our power to persuade the review that Leeds must remain open. I have been incredibly impressed by the campaign so far.

The parents and families have galvanised a powerful voice in making the case and communities across the county are doing their bit.

The consultation has now started and is open to responses from everyone who is concerned about the future of Leeds children’s heart surgery services. I strongly encourage everyone who has read this article and would like to express their views to respond.

In addition, this has become one of those issues that have united politicians. In an adjournment debate I secured in the House of Commons on this issue, it was great to see MPs from all parts of Yorkshire, from all sides of the House, uniting in their support for this unit.

By using the strong case and by coming together as one team made of parents, clinicians, residents and politicians, I hope that we can make those undertaking the review see that the only sensible option is to keep the Leeds unit open.

Stuart Andrew is the Conservative MP for Pudsey.