Family’s fight to let final Hillsborough victim ‘die with dignity’

Collect picture of Tony Bland who died at Hillsborough football ground.
Collect picture of Tony Bland who died at Hillsborough football ground.
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The family of the final Hillsborough victim have spoken of their heartbreaking fight to allow their son to ‘die with dignity’.

The new inquests heard further evidence about Tony Bland, from Keighley in Yorkshire, who was 18 when he went to the FA Cup semi-final in 1989.

Allan and Barbara Bland parents of Hillsbrough victim Tony Bland.

Allan and Barbara Bland parents of Hillsbrough victim Tony Bland.

He became the 96th person to die as a result of the tragedy in March 1993 after spending almost four years in hospital in a vegetative state.

A statement was read to the court in Warrington from Tony’s father Allan Bland.

Mr Bland said that four weeks after the disaster it became apparent ‘there was nothing left of our son’.

He said: “I just wanted Tony back and would look for any signs that might mean he was improving.

“However in all the hours we spent with Tony he never reacted to any stimulus from us or from anyone else, he never reacted to his hand being squeezed, or his newborn nephew Daniel screaming next to him on the bed.”

He added: “We had no life. There was no coming home, sitting down and just catching our breath. We were completely institutionalised.

“Before Hillsborough, we never discussed what any of us would want if this eventuality ever arose.

“We do not know if Tony ever indicated his wishes to anyone in this respect but doubt that the thought ever entered his mind that he might be in such a situation.

“We are as sure as we can be that, give a choice, he would have wanted to die with dignity once every chance of recovery had disappeared.”

The family was eventually granted legal permission for Tony’s feeding tube to be removed so he could die.

Mr Bland said: “We all agreed, after careful thought, that the feeding tube could be removed and feel that this what Tony would have wanted, although the matter was never discussed with him.”

He said: “When we viewed his body before the funeral it was the first time that Tony came back to us as he was before Hillsborough.

“It was the first time in four years that we saw Tony with no tube up his nose.

“For so long we had not seen him any other way.”

Following treatment at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital and Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Tony was transferred to Airedale Hospital in his home town on May 12 1989.

Giving evidence, his treating clinician Dr James Howe said Mr Bland was in a vegetative state on arrival.

His eyes were open and he had sleeping and waking cycles, but could not make eye contact and had no awareness of his surroundings.

Notwithstanding the high level of care he received from Dr Howe, his medical team and a wide range of specialists, together with the help of his family, he developed a number of infections.

Dr Howe said his patient remained unconscious and unresponsive throughout his time at Airedale.

Christina Lambert QC, counsel for the inquests, asked him: “Is this right, a difficult decision was made jointly by the family and the treating clinical team, that life prolonging treatment, including artificial nutrition and hydration, should be withdrawn?”

He replied: “That was our feeling, yes.”

The jury was told the hospital trust made an application to the courts in 1992 and it was finally granted in the House of Lords after the case was previously heard in the family court and the Court of Appeal.

Mr Bland, who was 18 at the time of the disaster, died on March 2, 1993 at the age of 22.

Peter Wilcock QC, representing the Bland family, said his clients wished to make clear their appreciation for all the skill and care that Dr Howe and his team had devoted to Tony.

Dr Howe confirmed that Mr Bland’s parents, Allan and Barbara, and sister Angela, did ‘everything they possibly could to help Tony’.

Mr Wilcock said: “The family regularly visited him, sitting by his bedside, stroking him and playing him tapes of his favourite music?”

Dr Howe replied: “That is correct. Somebody was with him every single day of the time that he was with us at Airedale.”

Mr Wilcock asked: “Would it be correct that from the beginning you spoke to Mr and Mrs Bland about what the outcome for Tony might be?”

The witness replied: “Yes, at the beginning. I told them what we were going to do and what we hoped might happen because some patients with brain injury still recover from the vegetative state, but as time passed it became clear that there were not going to be any improvements.”

He said that he told the family there were no known cases of good recovery from a persistent vegetative state after one year.

Mr Wilcock asked the doctor when he first realised the courts would have to be involved in the process.

Dr Howe, giving evidence via videolink from Australia, said: “Well, it first became clear when I contacted Mr (Stefan) Popper (the then-Sheffield coroner) and outlined to him what we planned and he wrote a letter pointing out that, as the law stood in England and Wales, I was risking the charge of murder.”

He said the Bland family initially had ‘great difficulty’ understanding the application to withdraw treatment before they later supported him as Mr Bland’s condition deteriorated.

Dr Howe said the family ‘could not contemplate further involvement with authority’ following the tragedy and found the resulting court process ‘quite traumatic’.

He said that he and the family remained in contact with each other.

The inquests continue.