Leann Sutherland was 21 years old and suffering from chronic migraines when one of Scotland’s leading surgeons offered to perform an operation on her.
She was told that she would be in the hospital for a few days and that she had a 60% chance of getting better. Instead, she was hospitalized for months while Sam Eljamel operated on her seven times.
The BBC revealed that the surgeon – the former head of neurosurgery at NHS Tayside, one of the units in Scotland of the British public health service – had been causing harm to patients and putting them at risk for years, but the board of health kept him in the role. .
NHS Tayside has always maintained that it only learned of the allegations from June 2013 and that it placed him under supervision at that time. But one person told the BBC that the board of health had known since 2009 that there were serious allegations against him.
BBC Scottish Service spoke to three surgeons who worked with Eljamel at Tayside.
All three said that Eljamel was allowed to behave as if he were a “god” — in part, because of the research resources he brought to the department.
The board of health told the BBC it was working with the Scottish government on an independent review of Eljamel’s actions and could not comment on individual cases.
‘I was his guinea pig’
Before her surgery in 2011, Leann worked full-time and vacationed abroad with friends, but her life was marred by migraines.
Eljamel, considered the best neurosurgeon in Scotland, told her he could help her.
After an operation, she would be home in a matter of days, he would have told her.
He would remove a small section of her skull to relieve pressure and told her he would use new glue to seal the wound.
Leann told the BBC: “Unfortunately it didn’t seal properly and it burst. The wound opened up and brain fluid started seeping down the back of my neck.”
She says that the next day, the hospital bed she was in was “soaked” with her spinal fluid.
When she got up to use the bathroom, she passed out and said the fluid spilled onto the floor. A nurse posted a wet floor sign in the area.
Leann spent months in the hospital. She contracted meningitis and developed hydrocephalus. Eljamel ordered her four lumbar punctures — which medical analysis concluded she should not have had.
Leann now knows that he was using the glue as part of a research test.
“Testing on me – that’s what he was doing,” she says.
“There can be no other reason to test a glue, to try different deviations. That’s experimenting. I was his guinea pig.”
She adds: “He had free rein over my body. He was playing God with my body and the NHS (UK public health service) handed him the scalpel, seven times.”
When Leann raised her concerns to the team, she was told that Eljamel had saved her life. She was not informed that he was under investigation, nor that he was later forced to resign from office.
It was only after seeing recent BBC coverage that she realized she wasn’t alone.
Leann is now 33 years old. She lives in constant pain. She needs crutches to walk and has a tube – called a shunt – installed in her body that controls her spinal fluid.
“Everything has changed,” she says. “My dream was to be a police officer and that will never happen. I struggle with that. Not being able to have the career you want, not being able to have the lifestyle you want, not being able to have kids.”
“Many things have been taken from me through no fault of mine.”
Leann is one of 100 patients calling for a public inquiry to find out exactly what Eljamel did.
The damage to her and other patients is irreversible, but she wants to ensure that the board of health is held accountable and that no other surgeon can cause such damage.
She says she only realized he had harmed patients after seeing a BBC Scotland report.
“I thought it would just be me. I didn’t know there were 99 other people,” she says.
“I don’t understand how he managed to wash the blood off his hands and go home.”
Eljamel was suspended by NHS Tayside following internal and external proceedings in 2013 and went to work in Libya.
For the first time, three people who worked with Eljamel spoke to the BBC.
Mark, whose real name will not be revealed, says he is speaking out now because he fears the board of health has not yet learned the lessons of the past.
“I made accusations at the time, but I was silenced,” he says.
“Part of me feels guilty for not doing anything [mais] about it, but I was too young.
“We were told we would never get our internship.”
He says nurses, senior surgeons and managers have known since at least 2009 that Eljamel was regularly out of the hospital doing private work when he was supposed to be operating on patients.
Mark says that on a weekly basis Eljamel let junior surgeons operate unsupervised.
“Letting a junior operate when you’re not even in the building and a patient gets hurt is negligent,” he says.
“NHS Tayside has covered things like this for a long time in Dundee.”
“It arrived at the council. Everyone knew about it.”
Mark recalls one occasion when he was in surgery to observe a junior physician operating on a patient from Eljamel when the junior surgeon accidentally severed the spinal cord.
He said the spinal fluid was “oozing” and that he and another surgeon were sent to find a more experienced surgeon. This patient was permanently disabled.
“What did this leading neurosurgeon do with these patients?” he asks. “I think it was serious damage. Cover-ups happen, so these things need to be investigated again.
The three surgeons told us that Eljamel discouraged the use of X-rays because he was too arrogant and wanted to save money.
It is believed that, as a result, he operated on at least 70 patients’ spines in the wrong place – leaving many permanently disabled.
Mark says that one of the reasons Eljamel was considered “untouchable” was because he brought a lot of money into the department through research projects that many of them found “weird and even questionable”.
A spokeswoman for NHS Tayside said: “The Chief Medical Officer and Chief Executive of NHS Tayside met with the Cabinet Secretary and local MSPs (Members of Scottish Parliament) in Tayside in April to discuss the ongoing concerns of the Professor’s patients. Eljamel.
“It was agreed at the meeting that NHS Tayside would work with the Scottish Government on next steps to support individual patients through a process independent of the board of health and the government.”
“NHS Tayside remains committed to doing whatever is necessary to support the independent process, recognizing that it will be tailored to each patient’s circumstances.
“While we cannot comment on individual patients and their treatment due to patient confidentiality, we invite Ms Sutherland to get in touch with the Patient Care Team at NHS Tayside.”