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by Mandy Rhodes
02 July 2023
The Sam Eljamel scandal demands leadership from the first minister

One of Eljamel's victims, Theresa Mallett, confronts Humza Yousaf at the SNP special conference | Credit: Alamy

The Sam Eljamel scandal demands leadership from the first minister

There’s something that has haunted me in the days following the SNP’s Convention on Independence in Dundee. And it’s not the recurring nightmare of what a de facto referendum means or whether Humza Yousaf managed to bring any clarity to the ongoing conundrum for an independence movement thwarted in its attempts to move forward by a UK government that holds all the cards. Because he didn’t.

It’s something much more rooted in the savage reality of a medical scandal that was all but ignored amid last weekend’s political ruminations by the gathered nationalists, so occupied, were they, in pouring plaudits on their leader.

Let’s face it, the first minister was applauded for simply having the political nous and basic humanity to leave the stage and go to talk to an extremely distressed woman that was heckling him. The acclamation he garnered for so doing, when she was booed, and when the reasons for her heartfelt protest were skimmed over, should sicken us all.

And call me cynical if you will, but given the woman, an SNP member for 33 years, had earlier been greeted at the Caird Hall by one of Yousaf’s closest aides, who acknowledged who she was, and even handed her his card, that being so, while Yousaf’s reaction to her protest was obviously admirable and open, and contrasted well with how other leaders might have reacted to protest, there was likely little spontaneity about it, and much more about stage management and political expediency.

And yet, one SNP MSP basically wrote a eulogy to Yousaf in The National newspaper dripping in superlatives, in which she described her leader’s “grace and humility”. She said he had “engaged in a respectful conversation, embodying the values we cherish – listening, empathy, and the unwavering belief in the power of dialogue to bridge divides.”

It was, she opined, “a moment of unity, a reminder that our cause transcends any individual and our collective voice and determination are our greatest strength.” Ye gods! He’s the first minister, not some deity. But the superfluity and magnificence of the verbiage would suggest otherwise.

What I saw was a woman at the end of her tether. What Yousaf’s supporters saw was a distraction to their campaign call.

Theresa Mallett is a woman desperate for answers. She put her trust in a surgeon to operate on her spine and was left with life-changing injuries that she didn’t even know he had caused. She has been in pain every day now for 11 years. She is one of a growing number – currently 118 – of former patients of Professor Sam Eljamel, who was head of neurosurgery at NHS Tayside and who was also an adviser to the Scottish Government before being suspended in 2013 after internal and external reviews following an “escalating number of complaints” about botched operations.

This is a scandal of yet unknown proportions, but as more patients of Eljamel’s come forward, the clamour for answers grows ever louder.

The disgraced surgeon removed himself from the General Medical Council register after restrictions were placed on him which meant he could no longer practice in the UK, but he is understood to now be working abroad.

He might be out of our reach, but he has left behind a trail of human carnage. Patients, like Theresa, who have been scarred both physically and mentally by what has happened to them, have come forward, one by one, as individual stories became public, and each began to recognise their own trauma in one another’s horrific tales.

Some have had the wrong body parts removed, others feel they have been experimented on, many don’t even know what was done to them while under his knife. One told me she felt like she had been raped, such is the degree of bodily invasion she feels. And there’s something Shakespearean about one woman who can no longer cry at the tragedy inflicted by Eljamel because he removed her tear duct instead of a brain tumour. 



This is a scandal of yet unknown proportions, but as more patients of Eljamel’s come forward, the clamour for answers grows ever louder. And with recent revelations from whistleblowers who worked with the surgeon saying that health board bosses were aware of his behaviour from as early as 2009, the demand for a public inquiry becomes ever more imperative. And it is what the victims want.

There are at least seven MSPs, including a former deputy first minister and a former health secretary, handling the aftermath of Eljamel’s butchery. Tory MSP Liz Smith has been dealing with constituents operated on by him for almost eight years. She handles calls every day from former patients seeking answers, has case files bulging with notes detailing his malpractice, and says she has never dealt with anything quite as heartbreaking as this.

But she has also been frustrated in her attempts to get answers about why this was allowed to happen. She has been ignored, fobbed off, and forced to use FOIs to get basic answers to fundamental questions about who at NHS Tayside, and in government, knew what and when.

And Willie Rennie was right to question why a Scottish Parliament debate, held just days after the Dundee independence convention, was focused on the hypotheticals of a written constitution in a hypothetical independent Scotland that would have hypothetical human rights at its core, when he and other MSPs are handling the horrific reality of Scots whose human rights have been so clearly trampled over by the egregious actions of a rogue surgeon operating in a Scottish health board under the auspices of a Scottish Government, in the here and now.

Theresa Mallett isn’t just a woman broken by a health system that should have been in the business of making her whole, she is a nationalist who has now left the SNP because she believes the party that she loved, and the cause that she believed in, has let her down.

And if this is a taste of the independence she has fought for all her life, she doesn’t want it. She meets with the first minister this week and wants more than warm words; she wants leadership that stands full-square behind the rights of ordinary Scots like her. And she wants a reminder of what it is she voted for.

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