Barnes Surgeon Says Patient Died Due To Hammersmith Bridge Closure

'Nightmare' traffic means emergency care hard to provide

Martin Hayward


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An on-call heart surgeon has expressed anger and frustration after a patient died before he could reach him because he was stuck in traffic – which he claims was due to the closure of Hammersmith Bridge.

The indefinite closure of the Victorian, Grade-II* listed bridge in April has intensified congestion on alternative routes over Putney and Chiswick bridges.

For Martin Hayward, a cardiothoracic surgeon living in Barnes, it has drastically increased his journey times when he is called to perform life-saving surgery.

“Cardiothoracic surgeons are a specialist service. We’re only in 28 hospitals across the whole country and there’s not many of us in London. So we’re on-call all the time,” said Mr Hayward.

Many of the call-outs are to the National Heart Hospital in Westmoreland Street, central London. But occasionally he’ll need to drive to Barnet Hospital, or The Whittington Hospital in Highgate, journeys which he now says are a “nightmare”.

“I have to go in once a fortnight, either for a stabbing or a cardiac arrest. Those journeys are now genuinely a nightmare thanks to having to fight through all the traffic.”

On an evening in June, he was called to a patient suffering a cardiac arrest days after having surgery for cancer at the National Heart Hospital.

“He was an older man,” Mr Hayward said. “I simply couldn’t get to him. He had a cardiac arrest and couldn’t be resuscitated. Only a cardiothoracic surgeon can open his chest to restart the heart. Otherwise there’s no way of saving him.

“We couldn’t provide the emergency care he needed. There was no way for me to get over the bridge.”

Whilst his journeys to hospitals in North London were already very long, Mr Hayward could once rely on escorts from police cars. But he says they’re now reluctant to help.

“I would call Hammersmith Police Station and they would get here quickly. Now I can’t do that. It’s a matter of fighting through the traffic,” he said.

“I’m incredibly frustrated. It’s a huge waste of valuable time. You know someone needs you at the other end and you’re not able to get there.”

He is not the first person to express disbelief when hearing the chain of events that led to the bridge’s sudden closure. It came after Hammersmith and Fulham Council hired engineers to carry out structural surveys ― the first in-depth checks of the 132-year-old bridge in more than 40 years.

In April, a microfracture was found in one of the iron pedestals that hold the suspension bridge into the riverbed. The cracks mean the pedestals could shatter if put under excess weight, so the council followed engineers’ advice and shut the bridge.

Council leader Stephen Cowan has said a full report of the repairs, and what they will cost, is due in September. But suggested it could take three years to “fully restore” the bridge.

Blame has also been hurled at bus companies and TfL, who broke weight limits that required only one bus to cross in each direction at a time.

Mr Hayward said: “The fact is that TfL flouted the rules flagrantly. They put in barriers to stop too many buses crossing at once. And that didn’t work. Then they put guards on the bridge and they still did it.

“People like us who live nearby would see it every day. The buses would be going over three at a time in both directions.

“They have openly admitted that the bridge was not serviced for 40 years. And the weight limit was broken on a daily basis.”

The closure has also created a problem for residents who have appointments at hospitals north of the river.

“Here in Barnes there’s a lot of older people who need to get to hospital appointments at Hammersmith and Charing Cross Hospitals. Now they’ve got a huge trek on three or four buses.”

A UCLH spokesman said, "Mr Hayward is currently away and we have been unable to check with him.

"We always have a medical team on site who deal with cardiac arrests and an on call service for patients who require specialist care. No patient has died as a result of Mr Hayward not getting to the hospital on time."

A council spokesman said an “emergency vehicle plan”, first introduced when the bridge would close briefly for maintenance works in recent years, has been in place since April.

“An emergency vehicle plan has been in place on the bridge since 2016,” said the spokesman. This was written by H&F Council with the full co-operation of the emergency services.

“We are working with TfL and world-class engineers to safely repair the bridge as quickly as possible.

“The advice of engineers is that it cannot be reopened to motor vehicles at this time, as this would cause an unacceptable risk to human life.”

A TfL spokesperson said: “As is normal for major work like this, we are assessing the full range of options and affordability, after which we will be able to give a better indication of likely costs and timescales. We have made changes to traffic signals in the area to reduce the impact of the closure, and will continue to monitor how traffic responds.

“We brought in a staffed gating system in 2016 to manage the flow of buses… and impressed the restriction on bus operators. While there were occasions that too many buses crossed, our work played a key role in reducing the number of buses on the bridge at any time and also stopped other overweight vehicles.”

Owen Sheppard - Local Democracy Reporter

August 6, 2019

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