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Teenager with brain tumour given 17 radiation overdoses


The Guardian
By: Riazat Butt
February 9, 2006

· Patient, 15, told of human error after getting all-clear
· Cancer unit director says staff are distraught

A teenager who was repeatedly given a potentially fatal overdose of radiation at a leading cancer unit spoke yesterday of her fears after the hospital where she was given the treatment said the mistake was the result of human error.

Lisa Norris, 15, was undergoing radiation therapy for a brain tumour at Beatson Oncology Centre, Glasgow, when she was given the potentially deadly doses 17 times. Doctors have told her they do not know what the long-term effects on her health will be. "I could be brain damaged, I could be paralysed. We don't know what's in the future. I could not be here," she said yesterday.

The teenager, who lives in Ayrshire, began radiation therapy on January 5 following chemotherapy at Glasgow's Yorkhill hospital. After she had been given the all-clear last week, consultants visited her home on Monday to tell her about the potentially fatal error.

"I'm very sore. I've got burns on the back of my neck and down my ears. I'm starting to blister and I can't sleep because I can't lie on my back," she said. "I'm really angry with them, they shouldn't get away with it.

"They should be put out of their job and not allowed back in the NHS because it could happen to someone else. I don't know what's going to happen to me. It could happen in the next six months to a year, it could be 10 to 15 years. It could happen when I'm 60." Her father, Kenneth, said the family had been "overjoyed" that the tumour had gone but the news from the hospital had knocked them for six. "On Monday her consultants came down and broke the news that they had given her this almighty dose of radiation," he said. "We haven't been able to sleep at night since. I feel very distressed. We want Lisa to get better but we want to find the people involved in this to get sacked."

An internal investigation is under way and a spokesman has said that it was the result of human error, not equipment failure. Professor Alan Rodger, medical director at Beatson Oncology Centre, Scotland's largest cancer centre, said: "My colleagues and I deeply regret the error that has led to Lisa Norris being given an overdose. We are conscious of the distress caused to Lisa and her family and we are very sorry that this mistake has happened.

"Our investigation has confirmed that no other patient treatments have been compromised. Treatment services for all other patients continue as normal.

"The staff involved with this isolated incident are distraught. Our team have held initial meetings with the girl and her family to discuss this error and its possible consequences and will continue to do everything in their power to support both Lisa and her family in the challenges ahead."

Jenny Whelan, head of the support organisation Cancer Bacup Scotland, said radiotherapy was one of three ways of treating cancer. "Doctors look at where the tumour is, how big and how deep it is. They work out the total dose needed to kill off the tumour without damaging the surrounding tissue.

"The dose is broken up into a number of daily doses. Each dose only takes a few minutes, and most people would have a daily dose over several weeks.

"If someone is undergoing radiotherapy for a brain tumour they normally lie down with their head in a fixed position and have little marks on the skin to ensure the same area is treated.

"As long as the initial calculation is correct the patient should be having the correct dose."

Martin Ledwick, cancer information manager for Cancer Research UK, said: "It's difficult to speculate as to what the impact of this might be as the situation is so unusual.

"It seems that the doctors have suggested there are certain quite dramatic side effects already. One of the key things that is going to be so difficult for the family is that there is going to be uncertainty about what's going to happen."

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