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26 April 2018updated 05 Aug 2021 10:15am

Alfie’s Other Army: the parents and doctors defending Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

To hundreds of thousands, Alfie Evans is the baby condemned to die by cruel doctors – but others question the myths and methods used by protesters fighting for his life.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Over the time we were there, they saved her life three times over,” says John*. “From our point-of-view, we will always be grateful. If it wasn’t for Alder Hey, she wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old father of four nearly lost his five-year-old daughter to a brain tumour. Suffering severe headaches in October last year, she was rushed in an ambulance to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, near where the family lives in Warrington, and a brain tumour was found at the back of her skull.

What followed was every parent’s nightmare. With their three other children waiting for news at home, they waited – living in the hospital – as their daughter underwent emergency surgery to drain fluid from her brain, a 12-hour operation to attempt to remove the tumour, and nearly suffered from sepsis after she developed an infection.

The surgery was successful, and John’s daughter still has regular appointments with the oncology specialist now.

But the scene outside the hospital has transformed since they arrived in that ambulance last autumn.

A mass of protesters have gathered in solidarity with the parents of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a rare neurological condition whose life support has been withdrawn.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a public surge of sympathy for his parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, which has grown into what’s known as “Alfie’s Army” – a wave of online support as well as a near-permanent rally outside the hospital, where he’s been since December 2016 and remains in a “semi-vegetative” state.

“I feel terrible for Alfie’s parents. I have no idea how they feel; I’ve only been part way down the path that they’re on,” says John. “I can only imagine that they’re at their wit’s end. I applaud them for fighting for their son as much as they are doing.

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“What I’ve got an issue with is pockets of the protesters who have caused massive issues and could be stopping other children being cared for, abusing medical staff, and just generally disrupting the hospital on a daily basis,” he adds. “And it’s the kind of place that can’t afford to be disrupted.”

***

The protesters support Alfie’s parents, who have lost a string of legal battles to keep their son’s ventilation on; he’s been in a coma for well over a year and has been deemed incurable.

They have attracted a range of people, from other parents to people who don’t live locally – including a mother from Manchester whose son went deaf after developing sepsis during birth – to Christian pro-life campaigners (Alfie’s parents are represented by the Christian Legal Centre, which is part of a religious campaign group called Christian Concern) to a 400,000-member strong Facebook group.

Although Merseyside Police emphasise that “many people have gathered to protest in a peaceful way”, a minority of the protesters have converted their sympathy for Alfie’s parents into hostility towards the hospital, with dozens trying to storm it on Monday, and “instances of verbal abuse and acts of intimidation from those outside the hospital”, according to police.

Protesters have also disrupted traffic, hooted car horns, played music and inflated a bouncy castle. Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy commented last week that some of their actions caused inconvenience to “people trying to access the hospital”.

A few days later, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson had to “remind the public that this is a hospital for sick children” and asked protesters to “respect families and staff”.

***

Online, parents of patients currently in the hospital report feeling upset by the protesters. One says the hospital staff are “still smiling despite the obvious strain of insults being thrown their way”, and claims a couple of them have had “people banging on their car windows on the way into work”. Another whose own child is on life support feels “trapped”, so reluctant is she to face the protesters outside.

This has given rise to a new online movement expressing support for the hospital. The #ImWithAlderHey hashtag is used on Twitter by locals defending the work of their hospital, NHS staff from other hospitals, and people dismissing the protesters as deluded.

There are also Facebook groups in support of the hospital, but they reach nowhere near the numbers of Alfie’s Army. Even its official page is smaller, with just over 60,000 followers.

Supporters of the hospital say this is because both traditional and social media have fuelled a viral movement against Alder Hey. The UK tabloids have been sensationalising the story – “Conspiracy to murder” was the Metro’s splash today – and social media is spreading myths about Alfie’s condition and the doctors’ and judges’ motives.

Some claim the hospital is trying to save money by reducing Alfie’s treatment to palliative care; a few accuse the doctors of a “conspiracy” to end Alfie’s life; others suggest he’s in better health than doctors suggest, because he continued breathing after his ventilation was switched off (doctors say they expected this).

“Everyone jumps on Google and suddenly thinks they are qualified doctors,” says Clare*, a 21-year-old mother whose friend’s two-year-old child is being treated at Alder Hey. “Social media especially [has influenced people].

“They [the staff] have done nothing but wonderful things for my friend’s child even during the madness of the protests. It’s so lovely to see their child smile because of the staff,” she says. “I’m disgusted that grown adults think it’s acceptable to stand outside of a children’s hospital… threatening staff and other visitors.”

“I think the people have joined because it’s within the media, it’s talked about, people know about the case,” says Poppy*, a nurse at a different hospital, who knows people at Alder Hey and has a 19-month-old baby.

“I most definitely think they have been influenced by the media, social media. The page ‘Alfie’s Army’ is a huge source of information… [but] they also use the page to slander Alder Hey and their staff,” she says. “There’s no moral respect for anyone. And it’s not just NHS staff they target. It’s everyone who doesn’t agree with ‘saving’ Alfie.”

***

There is a cultish feel to a handful of online posts about Alder Hey. While trawling, I even find a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate mocked up to read the hospital’s name.

This kind of tone shows the unintended consequences of a campaign going viral, and puts Alfie’s parents into an even more distressing situation. Last week, his father even had to apologise “to the parents and staff” affected by the protesters. While they are understandably fighting as hard as they can for their child, not everyone joining them in battle is helping.

The upshot is that this case has morphed from a debate about life support ethics into an issue of protecting hospital staff and patient visitors.

Parliament is now being petitioned to “Protect hospitals with exclusion zones preventing protest outside”, and although its low number of signatures is nothing on the petition for the Queen to intervene in Alfie Evans’ case, it does echo the context of a landmark ruling to ban pro-life protesters from outside an abortion clinic earlier this month.

While the swell of sympathy for Alfie’s parents is understood by all I speak to, the myths and methods swirling around it could be doing more harm than good.

“I think people have joined the family’s cause because they care,” a visitor to the hospital tells me. “It’s human nature to protect our young and nobody wants to see a child die… [But] it’s awful to see such hard-working professionals being criticised in such a way when they’ve gone above and beyond for every patient in their care.”

*Names have been changed on request of anonymity.

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