Somerset woman dies after hospital cancels vital surgery five times

Woman with blonde hair in blue hoodie on boat looking to the side
-Credit: (Image: David Crowley)


Hospital bosses have apologised to the family of a Somerset woman who died from a rare form of eye cancer after a vital operation at the Bristol Royal Infirmary was cancelled five times. Mum and grandmother Sarah Crowley, from Yeovil, died in May 2023 aged 67.

Her devastated sister, Verity Tebby, made an impassioned plea at a public board meeting of University Hospitals Bristol & Weston NHS Trust (UHBW) to prevent such a tragedy happening again, telling health chiefs the organisation had “left my beloved sister to die”. The trust says it is “sincerely sorry” and has made improvements.

Sarah, a mother-of-two who was awaiting the birth of her fourth grandchild when she died, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of eye cancer called choroidal malignant melanoma in 2016 and was referred for surgery at the BRI in August 2021 after scans showed the cancer had spread to her liver. But that operation, and four subsequent dates over the next few weeks, were all cancelled – three of which after she was admitted. In desperation she turned to the Royal Free Hospital in London to have it done as there was no guarantee of it going ahead in Bristol.

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Further scans following that surgery revealed it had spread and the only real option was a treatment called chemosaturation, which is not funded on the NHS. Verity said the delays at the BRI meant it was too late for less invasive treatments and that her time had been “squandered”.

She said that in a desperate attempt to at least live through the summer of 2023, Sarah opted for a treatment called immunotherapy, which she had been reluctant to have because of the side-effects, but that she was then not strong enough to endure this and died after her second course of it. Verity told the UHBW board: “Death is final, and I believe this is overlooked and disregarded here.

“My sister was a gracious and kind person, she saw the good in people, but this was tested during this time. At the fifth cancellation, her comment was ‘I believe they are just cancelling me until I am no longer surgically viable, that takes the decision from them’.

“I would like you to think about that and reflect on how you would feel if it were you or a loved one, because it appears not one person did. Your hospital admitted to failings and admitted to failing her.

Woman in floral dress with hand next to her eye
Sarah Crowley -Credit:David Crowley

“You were sorry but that holds no weight when I witnessed first hand the unbearable, unrelenting, cruel mental torture of someone simply trying to live. From the point of the routine scan and the suspicion of the lesion confirmed, I have lived through this dreadful ordeal with my sister.

“I have fought tooth and nail to try to help her and continued, not giving up, until her body did just that. The anguish Sarah, her husband and family experienced was heartbreaking and was still avoidable if someone had just bothered.”

Verity set up a GoFundMe page to help fund chemosaturation which can extend patient’s lives. It works by delivering extremely high levels of chemotherapy directly to the liver but at the same time protecting other organs from the drugs, which damage healthy cells as well cancerous ones.

Verity said the family remained in serious debt after funding three courses at the Spire Hospital in Southampton costing a total of £120,000 and that her sister looked at releasing equity on her house to help pay for it but that the process was lengthy and she ran out of time. She told the board meeting on Tuesday, May 14: “None of this would have been considered by your staff who dismissed the urgency and merely satisfied your criteria for rebooking within the required time frame.

“Sarah could not even bear the mention of Bristol as the trauma of what that represented was too overwhelming for her. I liken her situation to the sheep trailers we’ve all sat alongside in traffic, looking through the sides heading for the slaughterhouse or market to meet the same fate.

“The farmer may feel some pang of remorse the first few times he drops them off and then becomes detached and unaffected. This is how she was treated, but she was someone’s wife, mother, sister and daughter.

Woman in pink top reading her account of her sister's death from a sheet of paper
Verity Tebby at the UHBW trust board meeting -Credit:UHBW/YouTube

“You are meant to be in the business of saving lives, yet we saw no evidence of this. I can honestly say I am forever changed by these events and will remember your hospital as the one that left my beloved sister to die.”

Verity said that with no guarantee of any of the five scheduled operations going ahead at the BRI, Sarah was “simply left to it” and that no one from the trust contacted her other than to rebook the surgery. Verity said the family also did not hear back from staff despite asking numerous times for medics to request special funding from the NHS for chemosaturation.

She said: “The time was squandered. Not one person in Bristol helped her, they just kept cancelling and rebooking. It was a catalogue of disasters. She was dying. She was trying to find every which way to live, but they left her to die.”

UHBW interim chief executive Stuart Walker told Verity: “That's an incredibly powerful story and a hugely honest reflection of your, your sister’s and your family’s experience. It’s important having heard that story on behalf of the organisation that I apologise to you for delays in your sister’s care and for the experience that she encountered.

“It’s not acceptable to suffer those delays. We will do everything in our power to prevent a recurrence.

“A number of lessons have been learned from your sister’s case and we will continue to learn lessons.” Trust chief nurse and midwife Deirdre Fowler said afterwards: “We are sincerely sorry for the distress and upset caused by the cancellations of Mrs Sarah Crowley’s surgery, and the impact this has had on Mrs Verity Tebby, and their family.

A street view of the Bristol Royal Infirmary
Bristol Royal Infirmary -Credit:Google Maps

“This is not the experience we wish for anyone in our care, and on behalf of the whole organisation, I want to apologise for the experience that the family encountered with us. We take patient and family member concerns and complaints very seriously, and we have reviewed our processes and put improvements in place to address the issues raised.

“We bring patient stories to begin board meetings to inform and ground directors' understanding of the impact of the lived experience for our patients, as well as the experience of our staff and organisational culture. I want to personally thank Mrs Verity Tebby for sharing her incredibly moving and powerful story which has offered us valuable learnings that we have, and will continue to improve on.”