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Wisheart: Callous or caring?
James Wisheart
James Wisheart: At the storm's centre
There are few who have mixed feelings about James Wisheart, the surgeon at the centre of the Bristol heart babies affair.

There are many, both doctors and relatives of former patients, who are prepared to fiercely defend his reputation.

They say he is a deeply dedicated man, prepared to go the extra mile to help those in his care.

But lining up in opposition are many who label him an arrogant doctor, even callous in his approach to patients and their families.

But even the General Medical Council panel which ended his career in shame last year conceded that there was no evidence that he had acted with anything but the best intentions for his patients.

Since then, despite his retirement, he has been working virtually full-time on a defence which he believes will restore his reputation.

Continuing to fight

An office at his home in Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, is awash with paperwork - statistical analyses, the statements of his supporters and opponents, and the carefully-worded rebuttals he has composed to each and every one.

James Wisheart is the son of a Methodist preacher from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, and retains a soft accent.

His medical career began in the late 1950s, at Queen's University in Belfast, and eventually reached the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1975, when he was employed as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Open-heart surgery on very young children was still a young and rapidly-advancing science at that time, and Wisheart was carrying out procedures at the leading edge.

'Marvellous man'

In 1976 he carried out a pig heart valve transplant into teenager Sue Gale, who appeared at the GMC 20 years later to testify on his behalf.

She said afterwards: "Mr Wisheart is my hero. He is a marvellous man. I have never known a man with such patience and understanding."

Bristol parents
Many cannot forgive the Bristol surgeons
But although many parents describe his warmth and caring as they coped with the devastation of a child's death, others have emerged with a different version of events.

They found Wisheart, while not aggressive, certainly a doctor from whom it was hard to extract information.

Staff, too, vary from the staunchly loyal, and those who doubt both his technical abilities and his ability to communicate and lead.

Yet this was precisely what was demanded by his eventual role as hospital medical director, and, had he continued at the infirmary, chief executive.

Wisheart is often described as a man from whom it is difficult to draw a strong reaction, even in situations which would provoke anger or at least passionate response in most.

Deadly audit

Even when he knew that other doctors were compiling a separate audit of his work, his reaction is measured - a restaurant date with eventual whistleblower Dr Steve Bolsin, and certainly no desperate attempt to get his hands on figures which might blacken his name.

As one doctor told BBC News Online: "If somebody was doing something like that to me, I'd be going all out to get hold of the audit so I could clear my name.

"There are many people who simply don't understand how his mind works."

Steve Bolsin alleges that he was threatened by Wisheart - but there are colleagues who say that this is behaviour they do not recognise.

What does not appear to have wavered during the course of the GMC investigation, and then the public inquiry, is Mr Wisheart's self-belief.

If the proceedings have been an enormous strain on him, there are no clear physical signs of this.

He took early retirement as the GMC action got underway, retaining a pension which included extra money for a "merit award", payments on top of salary given to "exceptional" consultants.

His career has certainly proved out of the ordinary, although it is unlikely his pioneering work in the 1970s and early 1980s will be the reason that most remember it.

Full coverage of the Bristol heart babies inquiry report

Government response

Key stories

Key figures

Parents' stories

Background briefing


Bristol year by year
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