First testimony of doctor's fight to save Princess Diana

My battle to save Princess Diana: Doctor’s gives his first ever account of he ‘tried everything to get her heart beating’ in minute-by-minute testimony that destroys cruel smears she was allowed to die

  • Surgeon MonSef Dahman played a role in fight to save Diana, Princess of Wales
  • On the morning of August 31, 1997, Diana had been injured in car crash in Paris
  • He reiterated how emergency medical staff made every effort to save Diana
  • In exclusive interview, he said he was summoned to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital
  • Dahman has spoken to quash theories that they were part of a murderous plot 

MonSef Dahman works as a surgeon in the French Riviera town of Antibes, that ‘billionaires’ playground’ which once charmed Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald and still attracts the Hollywood elite.

One of his specialities is treating the obese. Life is good there, his career fulfilling.

But there are particular times of year — the last day of August and then again on his son’s birthday in November — when his thoughts darken; when they invariably return to an event which not only had a profound ‘impact’ on him personally but shocked the entire world.

‘The thought that you have lost an important person, for whom you cared personally, marks you for life,’ he says.

That is because for several hours in the early morning of Sunday, August 31, 1997, Dahman, the then young duty general surgeon in the biggest hospital in France, played a central role in the desperate fight to save the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. She had been critically injured in a car crash in the centre of Paris earlier that night.

In an exclusive interview, surgeon MonSef Dahman (pictured) has recalled how he was summoned to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to attend to Diana, Princess of Wales

He has never spoken to a newspaper about this episode until now. But in an exclusive interview for this investigative series and forthcoming seven-part Mail+ podcast, he has recalled in dramatic and moving detail how he was summoned to the emergency department of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to attend to a ‘young woman’ who turned out to be the most famous in the world. 

Dahman, 56, also recalled a chilling story of his own experience of the perverse iconography and unscrupulous monetising of the Princess, even after her death.

One of his reasons for speaking now — he received no payment — was to reiterate how, in contradiction to the conspiracy theories which claimed they were somehow part of a murderous plot by the British Establishment, the French emergency medical staff involved that night made every conceivable effort to save Diana.

To suggest otherwise — as had been done by Mohamed Al Fayed and several lurid foreign magazines, among others — caused both bemusement and hurt. 

A Parisian by birth, Dahman would not have been in his home city, let alone on duty, that night were he not about to become a father for second time.

Every August the French capital empties of those citizens who can afford to spend a month in the country or by the sea. If it were not for foreign tourists, the City of Light would be a ghost town. 

‘But I didn’t take a vacation that summer,’ he recalls to the Mail. ‘For the extremely simple reason that my wife was pregnant with my son (they already had a daughter). As a result, I worked all summer.’

And work he did — long, long hours like the junior doctors and surgeons in our own NHS. His shift that weekend had started at 8am on Saturday. 

He was still on duty at 2am the following morning, ‘though of course it was not continuous activity. I did have moments of rest. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was a pretty easy day. I didn’t have to deal with anything too difficult.’

That would change — dramatically. The Mercedes in which Diana was travelling crashed in the Alma tunnel at approximately 12.23am. Owing to the severity of her resulting injuries, she received lengthy treatment by doctors at the scene. 

She then suffered a cardiac arrest while being moved to an ambulance. After being revived, she was transported by that ambulance to Dahman’s hospital. She arrived there at 2.06am.

‘I was resting in the duty room when I got a call from Bruno Riou, the senior duty anaesthetist, telling me to go to the emergency room,’ Dahman recalls. ‘I wasn’t told it was Lady Diana, but [only] that there’d been a serious accident involving a young woman.

On August 31, 1997, Dahman played a central role in the desperate fight to save the life of Diana, who had been critically injured in a car crash in the centre of Paris (pictured)

‘The organisation of the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital was very hierarchical. So when you got a call from [such] a high-level colleague that meant the case was particularly serious.’ His rest room was only 50 metres from the accident and emergency department ‘And so I got there fairly quickly. And then I realised the true seriousness of things.’

He recalls: ‘My intern [his junior assistant] was in the room. But she was in a corner because she was a little overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment.’ Riou was also present. 

‘That too was a sign of the special importance. And he was personally taking care of a lady who was lying on a stretcher, with a lot going on around her.’ 

Dahman, 33 at the time, was then informed that the unconscious figure on the stretcher was no less than Diana, Princess of Wales. 

‘It only took that moment for all this unusual activity to become clear to me,’ he recalls with some understatement. ‘For any doctor, any surgeon, it is of very great importance to be faced with such a young woman who is in this condition. But of course even more so if she is a princess.’

He was unwilling to describe certain aspects of the treatment she received at his hands, for reasons of patient confidentiality. The Mail has also chosen to excise certain details presented to the official inquiries into her death, but it is important to make clear how hard the team fought to save her life, and how desperate the circumstances.

Diana had been X-rayed on arrival at hospital. The resulting images of her chest showed she was suffering ‘very serious internal bleeding’. As a result, she underwent a thoracic drain — excess fluid being removed from her chest cavity. 

But haemorrhaging persisted and Diana was receiving transfusions of O-negative blood held in the emergency room, as her blood group had not yet been established

At around 2.15am she suffered another cardiac arrest. The situation had grown more critical. More extreme intervention was needed. 

As she underwent external heart massage, Riou asked Dahman to perform a surgical procedure. He was to do so while Diana was still lying on the stretcher in the emergency room.

This circumstance was ‘truly exceptional’ and an indication of how parlous her situation had become. ‘I did this (procedure) to enable her to breathe,’ Dahman explains. ‘Her heart couldn’t function properly because it was lacking in blood.’

As a result of this intervention, Dahman discovered that Diana had suffered a significant tear in her pericardium, which protects the heart.

The prognosis worsened. It was now 2.30am. A miracle was needed. Dahman and Riou were joined in the emergency room by Professor Alain Pavie, perhaps France’s top heart surgeon. He had been summoned from his bed at home. If anyone could save her, it was him.

Dahman, 56, also recalled a chilling story of his own experience of the perverse iconography and unscrupulous monetising of the Princess (pictured in Paris), even after her death

Pavie decided that Diana must be moved into one of the hospital’s operating theatres. He suspected that the main source of her internal bleeding had not yet been found. Further surgical exploration was necessary.

It was this procedure that uncovered the most serious wound — a tear to Diana’s upper-left pulmonary vein at the point of contact with the heart. Pavie sutured the lesion. 

The most significant physical damage had been repaired. But to no avail. Diana’s heart, which had stopped before the surgical exploration, would not restart. They were losing the battle to save her.

‘We tried electric shocks, several times and, as I had done in the emergency room, cardiac massage,’ says Dahman. ‘Professor Riou had administered adrenaline. But we could not get her heart beating again.’

The team continued these resuscitation efforts for a full and ultimately fruitless hour.

‘We fought hard, we tried a lot, really an awful lot. Frankly, when you are working in those conditions, you don’t notice the passage of time,’ says Dahman. ‘The only thing that is important is that we do everything possible for this young woman.’ He says he had felt hope at the start. 

‘We had people brought to Pitié-Salpêtrière who were in a very poor state, more serious than Diana was when she arrived. It is one of the best centres in France for this type of trauma emergency. And we did save some of those people, which made us particularly happy and proud.

‘But that did not happen here. We could not save her. And that affected us very much.’

At 4am the team, led by Pavie, accepted that no more could be done to revive their patient. It was a ‘collegiate decision’, Dahman recalls. They ceased all resuscitation efforts. The extraordinary life of Diana, Princess of Wales, had come to an end.

Several years later the esteemed British forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd — who has been interviewed for this investigation’s accompanying Mail+ podcast series — reviewed the medical evidence for the Paget inquiry into Diana’s death, led by former Scotland Yard chief Lord Stevens.

Based on Dr Shepherd’s expert opinion, Lord Stevens — who briefed Prince William and Prince Harry on his findings — concluded in his report: ‘Those involved in the emergency treatment and surgery were highly qualified and experienced in their field. Their evidence showed that every effort was made to save the life of the Princess of Wales. No other strategy would have affected the outcome.’

D ahman could find no such consolation that fatal August night. On leaving the operating theatre he was both ‘exhausted’ and despondent. ‘It is always a great disappointment to see someone young leave us,’ he says.

‘Also you suffer great physical fatigue because of the energy you have expended trying to save her. And so we were particularly shattered and tired. At the end, we were broken.’

He called his departmental boss to tell him what had happened — and to prepare him for the pandemonium that was likely to happen as a result — and then returned to the on-duty rest room.

He was too tired and low to take any notice of the French dignitaries — including President Chirac — who began to arrive at the hospital early that morning to pay their respects to Diana.

In the next days he was witness to an unpleasant and shaming aftermath. Some members of the media tried to infiltrate the wards and corridors to get close to those who had been treating Diana.

One of his reasons for speaking was to reiterate how, in contradiction to conspiracy theories (pictured), the French emergency medical staff made every conceivable effort to save Diana

‘Pitié-Salpêtrière is a public hospital,’ he says. ‘The Princess was treated in a building where there were other hospital patients. We saw people disguising themselves [as medical staff], pushing trolleys, trying to get information. There was quite a lot of pressure on our security.’

One incident, which he has never spoken of before, sticks in his mind. ‘When I was treating Diana I was wearing my white sabots [clog-like medical shoes]. And obviously in that situation you don’t pay attention to anything but trying to save the patient. It was only the next morning I noticed that my clogs were stained with [her] blood.

‘Anyway, the hospital is very large and I was walking between buildings, when a Frenchman, approached me and said, ‘Ah, your clogs, I am interested in them. I want to buy them from you. They have the sang bleu [blue or royal blood] on them.’

Horrified, Dahman declined and as soon as possible cleaned the sabots he had worn that night: ‘Which was the end of that story.’

But not the end for him.

‘So here we have to consider the philosophy of life,’ he says. ‘It is a defining element, you can’t escape that. The thought that you have lost an important person for whom you cared, marks you all your life.

‘When it’s a princess and you follow her funeral along with billions of other people, and you had tried to save her, that obviously marks you. It marks you all your life. Because it’s so terrible that this beautiful person had such a tragic end.’

His own part in the tragedy nags at him. ‘It varies according to what is going on in my life,’ he says. ‘When we get to August I think about it. It was the year my son was born and of course every anniversary of that I think about it.’

‘I don’t go back to it all the time because a lot of years have gone by. But every time a new book [about Diana’s death] has come out [in France], it has been sent to me. So I have a collection of such books, unfortunately.’

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