A nurse of the year finalist who faced being struck off after she saved a woman’s life has been cleared by an official inquiry, the Mail can reveal.
Leona Harris, 48, who gave a blood transfusion in a speeding ambulance to a woman who was haemorrhaging after losing her baby, has faced a four-year nightmare, including the potential loss of her 24-year career and home to pay legal costs.
Through no fault of Mrs Harris’s, the required prescription for the use of the blood had not been taken on to the ambulance with the patient.
Mrs Harris, a married mother of two, claims she has been the victim of bullying by senior NHS managers after she saved the life of the woman, then 31, as she was being rushed from the Royal Blackburn Hospital to Burnley General in February 2017.
Leona Harris, 48, gave a blood transfusion in a speeding ambulance to a woman who was haemorrhaging after losing her baby in 2017
Now, four years on, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has concluded Mrs Harris ‘undoubtedly acted in the best interests of the patient’ and has ‘no case to answer’.
The ruling raises major concerns about the conduct of the East Lancashire Hospitals Trust, which used inexplicably altered statements about Mrs Harris’s conduct.
The 600-page report will heap new pressure on Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who pledged that ‘eradicating the curse’ of NHS bullying would be one of his ‘top priorities’.
Labour health spokesman Justin Madders said last night: ‘This is an absolutely terrible story and an awful way to treat those on the NHS frontline.
Matt Hancock must now show he will stand up for our doctors and nurses and stamp out bullying across the NHS.’ Mrs Harris was unable to return to work at the trust’s insistence for ten months, and resigned after she lost a disciplinary hearing.
She had to find work outside the trust and is now practising in Bury. She was a finalist for 2020 Florence Nightingale Nurse of the Year after raising £100,000 to buy iPads for Covid patients isolated from loved ones.
Just as she was succumbing to a severe bout of coronavirus that led to pneumonia, she was told that her former employer had asked the NMC to declare she was ‘unfit to practise’.
Christine Pearson, the trust’s director of nursing, said Mrs Harris had insisted that she would do the same if faced with a similar emergency, meaning she ‘lacked insight’.
But the NMC rejected the claim. The patient, a mother of three, told the NMC inquiry that Mrs Harris had saved her life.
The woman was being rushed from the Royal Blackburn Hospital to Burnley General in February 2017
Four years on, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has concluded Mrs Harris ‘undoubtedly acted in the best interests of the patient’ and has ‘no case to answer’
She said yesterday: ‘I will be for ever grateful to her.’
What bosses did
- Three statements used against Leona Harris altered before disciplinary hearing
- East Lancashire Trust said doctor who instructed Mrs Harris had ‘refused to cooperate’ with hearing – but he didn’t know inquiry was taking place. Nor did patient.
- Mrs Harris ordered to sign off sick for ten months over stress, or be disciplined for ‘unauthorised absence’ – despite wanting to work.
- Mrs Harris listed 11 witnesses at bullying inquiry – but HR chiefs ordered matron holding it not to speak to them.
- All hospitals near her home are run by the trust. When she applied for jobs, HR boss Matt Ireland told her not to bother.
East Lancashire was also pushing for Mrs Harris to pay their legal costs for an employment tribunal – meaning she faced a bill of about £100,000.
Yesterday, the trust backed down and said it was waiving its costs claim.
Key findings in the NMC report include that during East Lancashire’s own, earlier inquiry, which led to Mrs Harris being disciplined, it interviewed neither the patient nor the doctor who treated her.
The report also cited evidence that trust officials were unable to explain why statements made by colleagues about the incident were altered without their permission, making Mrs Harris look culpable and reckless.
It also included evidence that Mrs Harris’s claim she was being bullied was rejected after the trust failed to take evidence from 11 witnesses who were ready to support her.
Mrs Harris told the Mail yesterday: ‘I had no choice but to fight. I have been the subject of vindictive bullying. I just don’t understand why, and I would like an answer from Matt Hancock about that.’
A spokesman for East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust said the case had caused ‘significant pain and upset for many people over many years’, adding: ‘It has been very difficult and isn’t reflective of the culture at the trust or the positive relationships that exist between colleagues across our sites …
‘We have followed appropriate processes and note the NMC has decided not to take the referral any further.
‘A separate employment tribunal brought forward by Mrs Harris found in our favour but we have agreed not to pursue legal costs.
‘Mrs Harris has appealed the decision.’
Scandal to shake your faith in our ‘wonderful’ NHS
As the ambulance raced through the night, blue lights flashing, siren blaring, Storm Doris was at its peak.
Gusts of up to 100mph rocked the vehicle and nurse Leona Harris grew ever more fearful for her patient, a mother, 31, who had suffered a miscarriage and was bleeding heavily.
Just five minutes away from the hospital, Leona could see her patient, who was receiving a blood transfusion, was suffering badly, beginning to turn grey. The nurse was faced with a life-and-death decision.
Leona could see the blood bag was about to run out. She knew, too, that the time limit for the other bags of blood she had with her was about to expire.
Finding and matching another supply when they reached Burnley General, would waste vital minutes.
Leona Harris could see her patient, who was receiving a blood transfusion, was suffering badly, beginning to turn grey
‘My instinct and experience told me I had to act,’ Leona says. Not for a single second did she hesitate.
She asked a paramedic to hold her steady. As the winds howled outside, and the ambulance shook, she carefully changed the blood bag. They arrived at Burnley soon afterwards, and her patient was rushed to surgery.
The patient – who has asked not to be named – survived. She was able to leave hospital the next day and she immediately posted her thanks on Facebook to ‘the doctors and nurses’ who ‘saved my life’.
‘I was covered in blood. They couldn’t stabilise my blood pressure or stop my bleeding. She acted fast and saved me,’ she later said.
Leona Harris had simply done what she was trained to do. From the age of four, she had dreamed of being a nurse. She had to leave school at 15 and worked in a pie factory, but she did extra shifts as a cleaner and put herself through night school.
She rose to become a Band Six sister, spending most of her 24-year career at the Royal Blackburn Hospital, much of it in accident and emergency, ‘dealing’, as she puts it ‘with everything from cardiac arrests to all types of trauma’.
You may think that Leona should have been in line for an award for what she did on the night of February 23, 2017. The woman she saved thinks so.
But what followed is a scarcely credible – a four-year nightmare.
For NHS bosses have doggedly pursued this most public-minded of public servants, who has faced no fewer than FOUR inquiries into her actions on that night, and – even now – still faces one more hearing to try to overturn an employment tribunal judgment against her.
In the rush to transfer her patient from the Royal Blackburn to the obstetric operating theatre 30 minutes away in Burnley, Leona was without important paperwork.
The blood she used to save the patient’s life had not been prescribed and, through no fault of Leona’s, the patient’s notes had been left behind.
Not only did she find herself facing a disciplinary inquiry, she says managers made her take time off sick, even as she was desperate to return to the job she loved.
When she was eventually told she could return, there was a major catch: she could only do a desk job, or accept a humiliating demotion.
Leona did the only thing she felt she could. She quit, and began a claim for constructive dismissal on the grounds of bullying.
After losing that, Leona thought about throwing in the towel, but was persuaded to return as an agency nurse at Fairfield Hospital in Bury. She threw herself into her new duties.
Last year, despite working 14-hour shifts on the Covid frontline, and catching the virus, Leona raised a staggering £100,000 to buy iPads for patients to stay in touch with loved ones.
She was a finalist in the Florence Nightingale Nurse of the Year awards. And there were other accolades: TV appearances, an invitation to switch on the Blackpool lights and to the Royal Variety Performance.
But still her former bosses pursued her. When she said she would appeal after losing the employment tribunal, East Lancashire Hospitals Trust – more than three years after her life-saving actions – referred her case to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the nurses’ watchdog.
Ms Harris remembers introducing herself to the patient, who was rushed to Blackburn after losing the pregnancy and collapsing at home. (Stock image)
Incredibly, the trust asked that Leona be struck off as ‘unfit to practise’. And highly unusually, East Lancashire demanded its legal costs for the tribunal, saying her claim was ‘vexatious’.
Taking it to appeal – Leona has been granted one later this year on the grounds the initial decision was ‘perverse’ – would cost Leona a six-figure sum, and, quite possibly, the house in Rossendale she shares with her husband Nick and father of her two adult daughters.
But today the Mail can reveal two major developments.
First, the NMC has comprehensively dismissed East Lancashire’s case against Leona.
The nurse, its 600-page report concludes, ‘acted in the best interests of the patient’. She ‘contributed to saving [the patient’s] life’.
And secondly, East Lancashire, in the light of the NMC ruling, has backed down on its demands for legal costs.
The NMC report says: ‘The consequences could have been considerably more serious if she had taken no action… it is the opinion of the investigations team that there has been no wrongdoing on the part of Nurse Harris.’ She has, it adds, ‘no case to answer’.
Little wonder, then, Leona, 48, was celebrating with Nick yesterday.
‘When I got the news I’d been cleared, all I could do was cry. The relief was overwhelming. This had taken up more than four years of my life. It still doesn’t seem real.’
But what exactly can explain why all this happened?
For while the NMC says the case against Leona is closed, questions are very much open when it comes to East Lancashire’s handling of the affair.
The NMC report, for example, highlights evidence where statements were changed, with the effect of making matters worse for Leona.
It acknowledges that neither the patient Leona saved nor the doctor who treated her at Blackburn was interviewed by the trust for its disciplinary investigation.
Dr Badal told the NMC that she was a highly skilled nurse – and helped save the patient’s life.
And the NMC report contains evidence that the trust also neglected to interview 11 witnesses who supported Leona.
Let us go back to the fateful night to tease out what went wrong.
Leona remembers introducing herself to the patient, who was rushed to Blackburn after losing the pregnancy and collapsing at home. ‘She was absolutely terrified. Initially, her vital signs suggested she was OK.
‘But it’s a 30-minute journey to Burnley, and as time went on I just knew things weren’t right. She was pale – ashen. I know from experience that young people’s systems will compensate for loss of blood until they just crash.’
It was an emergency transfer, and Dr Sarin had told Leona: ‘Go now, just go.’ In the rush, the patient’s notes were left behind.
And, it has now emerged, the blood had not actually been prescribed – although it matched the patient’s.
Leona knew that changing the patient’s blood bag without the prescription meant she was technically breaking the rules. She has always admitted it.
But, she says: ‘This was an emergency. Saving her life came before paperwork.’
From the outset, though, managers at the East Lancashire trust took a very different view.
Some time earlier, her nursing team had been merged with another to form an acute care unit. The NMC report quotes statements from other nurses claiming there was a ‘culture of bullying’.
After the transfusion, Leona was told by her boss she would have to do a day’s training, and could then resume her normal duties. ‘I had no problem with that,’ she says.
But it was only the start. Another manager told her she had to write a ‘reflection’ on the incident. ‘I just wrote an account of what happened,’ says Leona.
But she was told this was ‘not good enough’, and that she had to admit that what she had done was ‘unsafe’.
Leona complied. ‘I decided it was worth it to get back to work. I was feeling beaten. But I thought that would be the end of it.’
Instead, she was notified she would face a disciplinary inquiry, and had to stay at home until it was complete.
Following a recommendation from the occupational health department, Leona was told by her bosses she had to sign in sick from stress or face further disciplinary action for ‘unauthorised absence’.
In despair, she lodged a formal grievance, claiming she was being bullied. And in August, Leona faced the disciplinary hearing.
Evidence in the NMC report shows statements about Leona by other hospital staff had been changed without the authors’ permission.
Among them, a description of an earlier incident when another nurse wrongly labelled a blood sample sent to the lab for cross-matching.
It was Leona who had spotted the error and put it right – but the altered statement made it look as if she had been at fault, suggesting a pattern of carelessness when it came to transfusion paperwork.
Another altered statement had a colleague describing Leona as ‘aggressive’. But the original, which the author had signed and approved, says no such thing.
And an additional statement used at the hearing came from the paramedic in the ambulance on the night of the incident. When she saw it – containing numerous inaccuracies – she protested via her union.
The paramedic even sent an email to divisional nursing director Jane Pemberton, saying: ‘Knowing that your trust has continued to use information that has not been agreed by myself has caused [me] stress and upset … Leona was professional throughout.’
The trust gave Leona a formal warning, the first blemish on a perfect service record, threatening her promotion prospects.
She was also told to stay off work, until her bullying complaint had been dealt with. It was rejected in December, nearly ten months after the incident.
According to evidence cited by both the NMC and the employment tribunal judge, the senior matron handling the bullying grievance was instructed by the human resources department not to talk to any of the 11 witnesses who Leona said would support her.
Leona says: ‘I think what really made them want to get me was the fact I’d alleged bullying. This they could not accept.’
Leona was told she could return to work – but would have to do either a desk job or work on a lower pay grade.
She quit on New Year’s Day, 2018, and said in her resignation letter: ‘My single aim is to return to the job I love with my employment record restored.’
She lodged an employment tribunal case, claiming constructive dismissal, heard over ten days in 2019. The trust sent ten senior managers to attend every day.
‘I felt they were there to intimidate me,’ Leona says. Some of them, she adds, had no connection to the case.
At the hearing, trust witnesses admitted statements had been changed, but could not explain why.
They also claimed the reason there was no statement from Dr Sarin, who treated the patient in Blackburn and thought Leona did nothing wrong, was that he would not co-operate with their investigation
Above all, the trust criticised Leona’s insistence that faced with a similar emergency she would do the same again. This meant she had a ‘lack of insight’ into her actions and was therefore ‘unsafe’.
Christine Pearson, the trust’s director of nursing, later gave the same reason for the complaint to the NMC.
The tribunal ruling went against Leona. In January, she was granted a full appeal hearing, to be heard later this year, on the grounds that the ruling was legally ‘perverse’.
Leona worked hard during the Covid crisis. The NMC took statements from many of her Fairfield colleagues, who praised her skills and dedication.
One patient, who lost her son in a neighbouring ward while she was herself being treated, said: ‘Leona was my angel who saw me through the worst time in my life. She was so good and kind – she never stopped.’
Somehow, Leona found the energy to raise the money for iPads in her spare time. ‘I did the fundraising because it needed to be done,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t only do it to help the patients. I did it to help myself, because it was a distraction, and because I found it so rewarding.’
Just as she developed Covid, she was told that her former trust had referred her to the NMC – the fourth inquiry she had to face. ‘The tears I shed, it felt like a constant battering,’ says Leona. ‘And I was so weak, I could barely get out of bed.’
But it was also the turning point. The NMC found that Dr Sarin was unaware of the earlier inquiry and endorsed her actions wholeheartedly. Changing the bag had been an ‘appropriate course of action’, he said.
‘If the patient had continued to suffer from a loss of blood, there would have been a risk of cardiac arrest.’ In his view, despite the absence of paperwork, if Leona had not acted as she did, ‘then this could [have been] considered neglect’.
The patient, who had also not spoken to the trust inquiry, told the NMC she believed ‘Leona was responsible for saving her life’.
The NMC found not only had Leona done the right thing, but ‘if it is accepted that [she] acted appropriately, then it follows that it would be difficult to criticise Nurse Harris for displaying a lack of insight by stating she would do the same again’.
It added: ‘It would be difficult to level any form of criticism of her.’
And the woman she saved? ‘Tell me she couldn’t put the fresh blood up because she didn’t have a piece of paper?’ she says.