A senior nurse who stole nearly £2,000 from a trust fund for patients at Birmingham Children's Hospital was allowed to keep her job yesterday, despite confessing to taking the money.
Sara O'Brien, a clinical nurse specialist at the hospital's haemophilia unit, escaped with a four-year caution although she told the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) panel that she paid drug companies' donations into the fund, which she controlled but which the hospital was unaware existed.
She admitted misconduct at the hearing in London but insisted all the money had been spent helping children in her care.
The 56-year-old, who worked at the Children's Hospital between 1993 and 2004 - when her spending was discovered - was found guilty of misconduct for concealing the fund, spending money on taxis and failing to keep correct records.
But O'Brien wept with relief as the NMC panel, sitting in London, gave her a caution that will remain on her records until 2012.
Last night a spokesman for Birmingham Children's Hospital said: "We are sure that the NMC took all the facts into account before reaching their decision.
"The trust are saddened by the case and would like to emphasise again, that the patient care standards of Sara O'Brien were never the issue here."
O'Brien was given control of the Aureon Haematology Fund in 1996, which had been set up by a patient's grateful parents. Over an eight-year period she took a total of £1,965 from the fund, including writing cheques totalling £202 for "petty cash" and £472 on taxis for herself after she was banned for drink driving.
Patrick Kelly, the panel's chairman, said: "There was no direct or indirect harm caused to patients and there was an early admission when confronted about the allegations.
"We accept there is a genuine expression of regret, and although this was not an isolated incident, it relates to one fund from which monies used for personal purposes related to taxi fares for professional visits to patients."
He added that O'Brien has since repaid all the money.
She became the sole manager of the fund, a breach of the hospital's financial rules, and did not even tell her bosses at the hospital it existed, said Mr Kelly.
During this time O'Brien solicited funds from five pharmaceutical companies - Baxter Healthcare, Bayer, Wyeth, ZLB Behring and Novo Nordisk.
Neil Millard, for the NMC, told how O'Brien wrote cheques to herself totalling £781 and made a cash withdrawal of £500 in June 2004.
He said: "When asked the purpose of the £500 withdrawal on June 4, 2004, she said she needed the money for Christmas presents for children on the ward."
She later returned the £500 to the hospital, claiming it had been kept in a locked drawer ready for Christmas.
After O'Brien was banned from driving in September 2003 she was chauffeured around by local firm TOA Taxis, paid from the haematology fund. O'Brien claimed she was making important visits to patients' homes and schools, but provided no evidence to back up her case.
The nurse was caught out in August 2004, when nurse manager Sue Ellis noticed a junior nurse's training trip had been paid for out of the Aureon Haematology Fund.
An investigation was launched, the fund was closed and O'Brien was sacked from her job in December 2005. O'Brien has never faced criminal charges.
O'Brien, who now works in a doctors' surgery, will be free to practice as a nurse but the caution order will remain on her record for four years.