Surgeon cleared over death of former head teacher after spinal operation

Richard Luke
The inquest was held at Winchester Coroners’ Court

A RETIRED head teacher from Highcliffe died after undergoing a spinal operation – but a coroner said the surgeon who performed the procedure had done nothing wrong.


The risk of fatality due to the surgery performed on Richard Luke (78) was rated at “5%” by the surgeon, Dr Jason Harvey, who believed the patient “deteriorated rapidly” in the two days after the operation because of the trauma it caused on the body and pre-existing conditions.

That was accepted by coroner Jason Pegg, who told Winchester Coroners’ Court the actions of Dr Harvey and Southampton General Hospital before, during and after the operation were “appropriate”.

A mainstay of the local Neighbourhood Watch who counted golf, crosswords and theatre-going among his passions, Mr Luke had developed progressive cervical myelopathy, which caused the loss of movement in his arms and legs.

The inquest was told he presented at Christchurch Hospital in early February this year and he was referred to Southampton.

Dr Harvey said Mr Luke was advised he should have a procedure to relieve pressure on his spinal cord.

While it was unlikely to reverse his neurological deterioration it would likely have stopped that slide, Dr Harvey said – and he noted Mr Luke also had other “significant” medical problems.

The inquest heard the procedure was “uneventful” and Dr Harvey had no concerns until afterwards, when Mr Luke could not move his arms or legs.

Mr Luke’s condition “deteriorated rapidly” as the blood supply to his spinal cord was disrupted, causing a spinal infarction that developed into tetraplegia and finally a fatal respiratory arrest. He died on 7th February.

Dr Harvey told the inquest prior to the operation, as is standard procedure, he told Mr Luke and his family of the potential consequences – including paralysis and death. He put the risk of the former at “10%” and the latter at “5%” and said either was a “very rare” consequence.

Dr Harvey said pre and post-operative MRI scans showed the surgery had been successful in achieving what it set out to do.

But the family, represented by Mr Luke’s son Ian and wife Joyce, questioned the pre-op warnings. Dr Harvey said “absolutely 100%” he advised them of the risk of paralysis and death – which the coroner accepted – and the medic also said Mr Luke consented to the operation.

Dr Harvey, a spinal surgeon for more than 15 years, believed the operation “sped up” Mr Luke’s condition – suggesting he would have lost mobility in the months anyway.

He said an internal hospital inquiry determined it “would not do anything differently”. Dr Harvey remarked: “There is nothing I would change in the future management if someone were to come to us with the same problem.”

The inquest heard Mr Luke was a “proud family man” who enjoyed spending time with his son, wife and grandchildren and had been a “highly regarded head teacher” in North London during his career before retiring to Highcliffe in 2004.

A lover of cruises, he travelled the globe, visiting Africa, South America and New Zealand among others, latterly going to Canada and Alaska in 2019.

“He was the foundation of a much-loved family; his absence has enormously impacted his wife, son and grandchildren and many others who had the privilege to know him,” Ian and Joyce added.

Mr Pegg determined Mr Luke died as a result of misadventure, caused by the complications that arose out of the operation.

Surgery came with a “degree of risk”, and without it Mr Luke would have deteriorated so the procedure was both “necessary and appropriate”, he said.