If you’ve ever wondered what your doctors and nurses do while you’re in anesthesia dream land, maybe don’t read any further. In deeply creepy news, a UK doctor admitted to burning his initials into patients’ livers during transplant operations. I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure “branding your patients’ organs” falls under the “do no harm” part of the hippocratic oath. (And it definitely falls under the “why did your brain even think to do this” part of the human experience.)
On Wednesday, Simon Bramhall, 53, pleaded guilty to two counts of assault. Bramhall initialed his patients’ livers with the letters “SB” using an argon beam coagulator, which is medical tool that seals bleeding blood vessels with an electric beam. His brandings constituted as “an intentional application of unlawful force to a patient whilst anesthetized.” As reported by the Associated Press, a prosecutor described the case as “without legal precedent in criminal law.” So, if there’s anything reassuring to come out of this, it’s that even the court of law was like, “...excuse me, you did what?”
This kind of branding would typically not be harmful to a person’s liver. Usually, the marks would fade as the liver healed. However, this did not happen in the case of one patient, a woman who received a liver transplant operation from Bramhall in 2013. As reported by the Telegraph, when doctors conducted a follow-up operation on the woman, whose liver was not healing normally, they discovered Bramhall’s burned initials.
Bramhall has currently been released on bail and will be sentenced on January 12.
Bramhall was not alone in the operating room when he decided to decorate his sedated patients’ organs with his initials. Prosecutor Tony Badenoch says the act was “done in the presence of colleagues,” the BBC reports. In fact, this in not even the first time Bramhall’s branding has come to light. They were uncovered and initially reported on in 2013. As NPR writes, they even gained enough attention that Marketing Week wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Bramhall’s actions exemplifying “the mark of true branding.” (Because, like, “branding” has a double meaning? Both of which are kind of gross and awful?)
Bramhall, who worked as a liver, spleen, and pancreatic surgeon for 12 years, was suspended after the brandings were initially discovered. However, another of Bramhall’s previous patients made a plea to for his reinstatement a few months later, saying she wanted him back in the operating room “so that he can save more lives.” That patient, who received a life-saving operation from Bramhall ten years prior, also told the Birmingham Mail, “Even if he did put his initials on a transplanted liver, is it really that bad? I wouldn't have cared if he did it to me. The man saved my life.” Bramhall was reinstated in April 2014.
Bramhall’s recent guilty pleas “represent an acceptance that that which he did was not just ethically wrong but criminally wrong,” prosecutor Badenoch said, according to the Guardian. “It was intentional application of unlawful force to a patient whilst anesthetized,” said prosecutor Elizabeth Reid, according to the Telegraph. “It will be for others to decide whether and to what extent his fitness to practise is impaired."
While this case may be “unprecedented” in UK courts, it has unfortunately already happened in the U.S. In 2000, a New York doctor was sued allegedly carved his initials into a woman’s abdomen after a c-section surgery. In 2010, a patient in California sued her gynecologist for allegedly branding the patient’s own name into her uterus using a “electrocautery device.”
It’s not even the first time a patient discovered medical professionals acting unprofessionally while being sedated. As the Washington Post reports, an anesthesiologist was caught trash talking one of her patients in 2015. Another patient caught her doctor making racially charged comments about her while being operated on in 2016. That patient decided not to press charges. However, she told the Washington Post she hopes medical professionals would hear her story and be reminded to, “Just treat people the way they would like their mother, their sister, their wives to be treated.”