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Burns Unit marks anniversary of tragedy that shocked a city and a nation

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Prof Julie Thornton

Directors thank fundraisers for continued support

Thirty-six years ago today (Tuesday, May 11), a fire at Bradford City FC’s Valley Parade ground left 56 people dead and hundreds wounded, many suffering severe burns.

The disaster played out on live TV and was described by sports commentator John Helm at the time as a “burning hell”.

The legacy of that day has been etched on the national consciousness. It led to new safety measures for football stands and saw the creation of the internationally renowned Bradford Burns Unit, a partnership between the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the Bradford Royal Infirmary and the Centre for Skin Sciences at the University of Bradford.

Critical support

The unit was founded by Professor David Sharp OBE, the consultant plastic surgeon at Bradford at the time, who was faced with treating no fewer than 258 people with burns, many to their hands, which in part led to the creation of the Bradford Sling®.

Prof Ajay Mahajan took over from Prof Sharp when he retired in 2014 and is Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Bradford Teaching Hospitals and Professor of Plastic Surgery at the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit (PSBRU), also known colloquially as the Bradford Burns Unit.

Speaking on the anniversary, Prof Mahajan said: “This past year has not been easy. The pandemic put a huge strain on the NHS, while limiting activity in the University following the lockdowns. We redirected our resources to the NHS and all our research fellows, Lucy Trevor, Alina Chelmus and Kirsty Smith helped out at the Bradford Royal Infirmary. But we also continued with our academic activities and have published our work and presented it at meetings in the virtual format.

“Over the years, our work at the PSBRU has been possible because of the ongoing generosity of the people of Bradford and support from Bradford City Football Club. In spite of the pandemic, people have continued to support us by carrying out various fundraising activities. The lockdowns did not wane their spirit and people found innovative ways to raise funds for us. We, at the PSBRU, are very grateful for this support.”

Pioneering research

Professor Julie Thornton, Director of the University’s Centre for Skin Sciences, said: “For the last 36 years, we have been supported by the generosity of people fundraising and we are very grateful. The pandemic has presented challenges, but we continue to conduct pioneering research into burns, and tissue repair and regeneration. This unit was set up specifically for trainee doctors to come and do scientific research and that mission continues.”

Recent successes for the Unit include a number of career progressions for those training there.

  • Dr Lucy Trevor, the Bradford City FC Supporters Fellow, was awarded the highly prestigious President's Prize, by the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, which is given for the most outstanding contribution by a trainee to the advancement of surgical science related to the field of plastic, reconstructive, and aesthetic surgery. Her research has centred around understanding the damage caused by radiation burns that occur in women treated with radiotherapy for breast cancer. She also found time to write her PhD thesis.
  • Dr Kirsty Smith finished a project on using current advances in facial recognition computer technology to aid clinicians in their initial burn assessments. Her work has been presented at various meetings and she is now in the process of writing up her thesis on this for her MPhil award.
  • Before the pandemic, Mr Jing Tay, the Unit’s David Sharpe Research Fellow, successfully completed his PhD and is on the path to becoming a consultant plastic surgeon, having been awarded a national training number in Plastic Surgery recently.
  • Trainee plastic surgeon, Ms Priyatma Khincha, was awarded an MSc in Surgical Sciences from the University of Edinburgh for her work in collaboration with the PSBRU on reviewing the modalities of treatment used to decrease the area of burns to aid in faster and better healing.
  • Just before lockdown, Dr Alina Chelmus joined the Unit to conduct research into how (adipose derived) stem cells can be beneficial in burn wound management.
  • In 2020 the Burns Unit presented its work at various international virtual meetings and published papers in the Internal Journal of Clinical Practice, Journal of Clinical Medicine, Burns Journal, Journal of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery.

Anniversary service

special service will be held online this year to mark the 36th anniversary of the Bradford City AFC fire disaster at Valley Parade.

The annual memorial service marking the anniversary of the Valley Parade Fire Disaster will sadly not take place in person again this year in Centenary Square due to the current restrictions on outdoor mixing and concerns regarding the transmission of the coronavirus in public gatherings, instead a special service will be held online like it was last year.

The service will be streamed from 11am on Tuesday, 11 May.  Readings and prayers will be delivered via the club’s and Council’s communications channels by a host of representatives and colleagues from across the district.

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