Thursday, November 15, 2012

Official buckpassing: Australian nurse wrongly blamed for death at poorly resourced public hospital

Jane Thompson says her life has been reduced to 49 minutes. In that space of time, three children can lose a mother, a husband can lose a wife and a nurse can find herself publicly blamed for the whole lot, in a case that became a cause celebre for stretched hospital resources.

Ms Thompson has written reams of statements and answered thousands of questions about her movements between 8.03am on June 24, 2007, when a 29-year-old woman who had just delivered a baby girl by caesarean section came into her care at Bathurst Hospital, and 8.52am, when she urgently called back the doctors. The woman later died from post-partum haemorrhage.

Now, finally, Ms Thompson has been exonerated of wrongdoing. But the nurse's battle to clear her name came at the cost of her marriage, her career and almost her sanity.

After the incident, the hospital conducted a "root cause analysis", which indicated that it took Ms Thompson 36 minutes between noticing the blood loss and calling back the specialists. That report has since been discredited but it was seized on by the grieving family desperate for answers and the Health Care Complaints Commission, which has pursued Ms Thompson ever since.

It also came into the possession of the then opposition spokeswoman for health, Jillian Skinner, who held a doorstop with the patient's widower in which she presented it as the epitome of what was wrong with NSW hospitals: "Poor communication, inexperienced staff, equipment that didn't work." When that hit the headlines, the town rounded on its hospital, which fielded death threats and abusive phone calls in the days that followed.

Brendan Smith, who was in charge of the anaesthetic department, said the effect on staff was debilitating. "Nurses were bursting into tears in the corridors," he said.

For Ms Thompson, it was too much. She moved out of the operating theatre, which she loved, and into a community role. "I felt that I was No.1 target," she said. "I couldn't cope with it any more, with that high pressure environment."

Worse was to come. In June 2009, a coronial inquiry into the incident was held at Westmead. Ms Thompson was labelled as "junior" and "untrained". She was blamed for taking too long to call the doctors, keeping poor notes and failing to recognise that the patient was about to haemorrhage.

Professor Smith said staff were confused by the focus on Ms Thompson. "I don't know quite what happened at the coroner's inquest but somewhere behind closed doors there seemed to be some kind of agreement that Jane Thompson's pelt was going to be tied to the back fence," he said.

Ms Thompson gave evidence for five hours. "The family's barrister … said I was a liar and incompetent, and I did not look after my patient," she said. "Apart from losing [the patient], it's the most horrific thing that ever happened to me. I can't sleep at night. I'm still stuck in that coroner's court."

The coroner made no adverse findings against Ms Thompson, but the commission pressed on with its case against her. It took its complaint against her to the Professional Standards Committee, and when she was cleared in that forum, it appealed to the Nursing and Midwifery Tribunal, which ordered a new hearing.

But by now, Ms Thompson had legal representation and was better prepared. Two emergency doctors gave evidence that she could not have anticipated the haemorrhage and a more thorough investigation of call records indicated she had informed doctors immediately.

She told the tribunal: "I still cannot believe that out of the entire team that was on that day that I am the only one that is being accused of anything … I looked after my patient."

The Nursing and Midwifery Tribunal dismissed the case against Ms Thompson earlier this month. The decision is a vindication of Ms Thompson but for her there is something bigger at stake.

"These five years I've been under intense pressure, fighting for every breath I took," she said. "If I gave up, I knew I was going to be tainted with the death of [the patient] and I didn't want to live with that and I didn't want them to live with that. "I didn't want those three little children to believe that I was the cause of their mother's death."

Original report here. (Via Australian Politics)

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