Until a public inquiry in 1999, the general public was unaware that Alder Hey and other hospitals within the National Health Service (NHS) were retaining patients' organs without family consent.
The inquiry was sparked by the death of 11-month-old Samantha Rickard, who died in 1992 while undergoing open-heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI). In 1996, four years after Samantha's death, her mother Helen Rickard learned of the allegations of excessive mortality rates for children's heart surgery at the BRI. Rickard demanded a copy of her infant daughter's medical records from the hospital and found a letter from the pathologist who performed the post-mortem to her surgeon, stating that he had retained Samantha's heart. Confronted with this evidence, the hospital promptly returned the heart in 1997. Rickard quit her job in order to find out exactly what had happened to her daughter; she set up a support group with other parents and ran a free phone helpline to cater to the many other families affected as well.
A Bristol Heart Children Action Group was set up, and the group embarked on discussions with the hospital to find out how much human material had been kept from children who had died after cardiac surgery. In February 1999, the Action Group members called a press conference so that the public could learn about the retained hearts. In the meantime, serious doubts about the quality of paediatric cardiac surgery at Bristol led to the formation of a Public Inquiry, chaired by Ian Kennedy. In September 1999 a medical witness to the Inquiry drew attention to the large number of hearts held at the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool.
As the details of Alder Hey's organ retention began to come to light the public learned that the programme went back decades. An investigation was opened in December 1999 bringing to light the fact that Alder Hey was not the only Liverpool hospital affected; Walton Hospital had stored the organs of 700 patients.