‘I felt I had to tell this story, because it raises important issues, not only for healthcare workers, but for everyone using the health service.’
After moving to Manchester from Sierra Leone in the late 60s to study medicine, David Sellu began a long and successful career in general and colorectal surgery. In 2010 a patient with a potentially fatal bowel condition died under Sellu’s care at a private hospital in Harrow. In his debut, Did He Save Lives? A Surgeon’s Story, Sellu tells of his conviction for manslaughter and fifteen-month (of a two-and-a-half-year sentence) imprisonment in ‘one of the toughest prisons in the country.’
‘I had had a previously unblemished career up to this incident, but I lost everything I had worked so hard for.’
After his release, Sellu’s friends and family – led by neurologist and passionate advocate for justice Dr Jenny Vaughan – won his appeal to have his conviction overturned ‘against huge odds.’ Now back working part-time and volunteering in Sierra Leone, Sellu spoke to us about how the experience has changed his view of the health service, noting the ‘blame and shame regime’ that defines the way healthcare professionals work.
‘Are healthcare workers, who are doing a difficult job making life and death decisions with no intention of causing harm, going to be so frightened by the threat of law and regulation that they will practise defensive medicine?’
The title of the book Did He Save Lives? was inspired by an event which brought home the nature of this fragile healthcare system. During Sellu’s trial, a witness and long-term colleague was asked a pivotal question: ‘Did Mr Sellu save lives?’ The answer was an emphatic yes, but this didn’t affect the final verdict. ‘I believe I have saved countless lives during my work, but this counted for nothing when I was being sentenced for an offence which I had not committed.’
‘Are healthcare workers going to be so frightened by the threat of law and regulation that they will practise defensive medicine?’
‘I am wiser and perhaps more cautious now, fearful that any untoward incident could land me in trouble again. But, over-caution is not always a good thing, it makes surgeons (in particular) tend to avoid making difficult decisions and to shy away from taking on the care of dangerously ill patients who might otherwise die.’
Sellu now advocates for the renegotiation of medical practice. ‘Defensive medicine is carried out to protect workers rather than for the best interest of patients. But is it not better to have an atmosphere where workers can own up to honest mistakes, so that we can improve the care systems for future patients?’
But it is not only fear and defensive medicine that impacts on medical practice. Sellu draws attention to a recent medical review that found that while everyone takes credit for the successes of the health service, a disproportionate number of workers of black and minority ethnic (BAME) background are punished for its failures, himself included.
Did He Save Lives? is not only an account of a legal injustice, it is the account of an extraordinary series of events, describing how Sellu came from a humble background and made it at the top of his industry, helping to ‘save lives and help alleviate suffering.’ And yet, he notes, despite everything, ‘when things went wrong, I was treated in unbelievable ways.’
‘A disproportionate number of workers of black and minority ethnic (BAME) background are punished for the failures of the health service’
Sellu’s son, James, followed his father to Manchester University, where he qualified as a doctor. He graduated while Sellu was in prison, but his father’s fate and the racism he encountered during his studies dissuaded James from pursuing his passion. He chose instead to follow a career in business. When Sellu received this news during a visit, he was devastated. ‘He had witnessed the humiliation and anguish I had suffered despite my distinguished past record. He never did carry on.’ Did He Save Lives? brings attention to the racial biases in society and how they operate in the medical community.
‘My thoughts go out to the patient and his family. They have not had any clear answers for why their loved one died, so they, too, have suffered’
Sellu began writing Did He Save Lives? when he was in prison, finishing it after his release. This six-year process has resulted in an impactful account of injustice, but it was not an easy process. Although the catharsis of writing a book offered an opportunity to ‘offload many of the potentially damaging emotions’ that the experience left him with, Sellu notes that recounting such traumatic events was truly ‘harrowing,’ especially in the knowledge that many people in similar situations have not had the same opportunity to reclaim their lives. A significant number of doctors faced with the prospect of encountering the medical regulator (the General Medical Council) tragically take their own lives.
And, of course, there can be no complete resolution to such a tragic course of events. ‘I was sorry that I could not save his life, but it was not my fault. [The family] has not had any clear answers for why their loved one died, so they, too, have suffered.’
‘My message to everyone, not just those in the medical community, is that we must all strive to make healthcare a less intimidating environment to work in. This will make it a far safer place for our patients.’
A note from the author: I wish to express my gratitude to my literary agent, Jemima Hunt of The Writer’s Practice and to whitefox for recognising the potential of the manuscript that I presented to them and for their help in turning it into the powerful book that my friends say it is.