Sheffield retiree tells inquiry of Cyprus deportation threat after hepatitis C shock decades after blood test

A retired nursery teacher from Sheffield has told an inquiry how a shock diagnosis of hepatitis C led Cyprus authorities to threaten her with deportation and brand her an "undesirable immigrant" - more than 30 years after it is thought she was infected during a recommended blood test.

By John Blow
Wednesday, 19 June, 2019, 15:04

Grandmother-of-four Susan Harrison, 69, today told the Infected Blood Inquiry how she collapsed in 2008 after police officers on the Mediterranean island told her "we're supposed to arrest you and put you in prison until the Army deport you".

->Leeds man tells Infected Blood Inquiry of wife's death after hospital blood transfusionsMrs Harrison said she was recommended for tests for blood-related problems after the death of her mother in September 1976.

Susan Harrison.

She told the inquiry, currently sitting in Leeds, that in November that year she attended Sheffield Royal Infirmary, where they took blood during treatment in which the Factor VIII clotting agent was used.

"After that I never heard anything more so I just assumed everything was all right," she said during evidence.

->Mother told woman with hepatitis C it would be better to kill herself, Infected Blood Inquiry hearsMrs Harrison and her husband Trevor bought a small holiday home in Cyprus and travelled there in 2008.

The couple wanted to leave a car there because they would be going to and from the area, but the process required blood tests.

After being told she had an infection, Mrs Harrison needed more tests and was diagnosed with hepatitis C.

She told the inquiry the couple then received a phone call from police asking them to take her passport in to the station.

"They took the passport off me and looked at it and said, 'Come back tomorrow'," she said.

When the pair returned the next day, the mother-of-two told the inquiry: "One of them came up and said, 'Right Mrs Harrison, we're supposed to arrest you and put you in prison until the Army deport you'.

"At that point I collapsed because I was a law-abiding citizen."

She added: "They said, 'It's okay we're not going to put you in a cell but the Army will be in touch."

"He said, 'Get a flight out. You will be deported, there is nothing surer. Why don't you do it before the Army does it to you?'"

She told the inquiry how they went to the border at 3am in the morning "so there was nobody else there", where she had to get out of the car and was asked to sign a four-page document written in Turkish.

But at the end it said "undesirable immigrant", the inquiry heard.

She said: "I cried all the way to the airport."

Sarah Fraser Butlin, junior counsel to the inquiry, asked Mrs Harrison about the emotional impact.

Mrs Harrison, who used to work at Brunswick Community Primary School in Woodhouse, said: "I felt so dirty. I didn't want anybody to touch me in case I made them dirty."

On a visit to see her son John, she said: "You can't cuddle me, kid, because you could catch something and all I'm worried about is if you ever have babies, [you] won't be able to cuddle them."

She told of how in the years before her diagnosis she had suffered with insomnia, headaches, stomach aches and such bad fatigue that she had to drop down to part-time hours at work.

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During this time she was "fobbed off and fobbed off and fobbed off" by health workers who suspected the symptoms could have related to menopause or irritable bowel syndrome, Mrs Harrison said.

However after diagnosis, tests revealed the viral load in her liver from hepatitis C was "very high".

In September 2008 she was referred for treatment with interferon and ribavirin, having to self-inject, and suffered nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

An initial 40-week treatment failed to clear the virus and it was extended, and she received it for 72 weeks in total.

She told the inquiry that once when speaking to her husband, she said: "I shan't do anything silly Trevor, because I'm not that way built, but I just want to go to bed, go to sleep and never wake up again."

The pair's social life also suffered, she said.

"I just used to sit in the corner of the settee with my knees under my chin and try and cope."

Eventually the virus was cleared and the pair again intended to go to Cyprus, but the inquiry heard the deportation order was continued to be valid.

This was lifted with the help of a human rights group, but they continued to face complications with getting into the area.

While in Sheffield, Mrs Harrison told the inquiry: "We wrote to a number of surgeries to try and trace back medical records because there was gaps in them."

The inquiry heard how she had "no other risk factors" for hepatitis C and that there was "nothing in any records showing [she] could have been infected in any other way" than the 1976 blood testing.

Mrs Harrison also described the process of getting money from the Skipton Fund, an organisation established to make payments to those people infected with Hepatitis C through NHS blood or blood products, as "quite challenging" because of her missing medical records.

After originally being turned down for a payment, the decision was overturned with the help of her then MP Nick Clegg, the Hepatitis C Trust and health workers.

But she had to sign a waiver stating that she would only get one payment and could not claim for more, the inquiry heard.

Mrs Harrison said she was only recently monitored by health authorities, but at preliminary discussions for the inquiry found out she should have had follow-up checks after 2010, when she was discharged from treatment.

A doctor told her she should have been called back after four years for a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.

However a recent fibroscan came back as normal and she is due to have a further ultrasound and scans next month.

The contaminated blood scandal has been labelled the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.

Potentially thousands of patients were infected with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s, and around 2,400 people are thought to have died.

Many contaminated blood victims had haemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder, and relied on regular injections of clotting agent Factor VIII, which was made from pooling human blood plasma.

Britain was running low on supplies of Factor VIII so imported products from the USA, where prison inmates and others were paid cash for giving blood.

Led by former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff, evidence will finish in Leeds this week before heading to Edinburgh and Cardiff in July.