26 February 2024

Centenary Hospital patients are being exposed to 'significant risks' - I think I was one of them

| Claire Fenwicke
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two babies

My son and daughter were born at Centenary Hospital during the pandemic, and I have no complaints about the care that they received. Photo: Supplied.

Being a journalist, I try my best to be objective and not let my experiences get in the way of telling a story fairly.

Which is why I had to take several deep breaths when reporting on the latest training accreditation report into Centenary Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s obstetric and gynaecology unit, which highlighted patients being exposed to “significant risks” due to a myriad of ongoing issues.

Before we dive in, some context: I had my twins in June 2020, when the health system was scrambling under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given I was pregnant with twins and didn’t have private health cover, I couldn’t deliver at Queanbeyan Hospital (I live in NSW and they don’t take high risk pregnancies anyway). My address also meant I wasn’t eligible for Centenary’s CATCH program, where you get the same midwife for your entire pregnancy.

Still, I feel my concerns during my pregnancy were missed and dismissed.

READ ALSO An ode to the midwife

What was the moment I lost faith that I was receiving the healthcare I had expected?

Was it when, for the third appointment in a row, my blood type was incorrectly quoted and I was told I would have to have an ‘anti-D injection‘ after birth? (Why this wasn’t changed on my record the first time I brought it up, I have no idea.)

Was it when I voiced my concerns that I had lost a lot of weight because of nausea and vomiting, and the midwife looked me up and down and said: ‘You look fine to me?’. (I made her weigh me and we discovered I had lost six kilos in my first trimester. She listened to me then.)

Was it when the doctor (who had a trainee in the room) asked if I had any questions and, when I pulled out my list, stood at the door with his hand on the knob rather than sitting back down and actually listening? (I stopped after question three because he clearly had better things to do.)

Was it when, two weeks before giving birth, I mentioned I had been having vision disturbances and really intense swelling in my feet and calves? The recently graduated midwife asked: ‘Is the swelling abnormal?’. When I replied: ‘I don’t know, it’s my first pregnancy, would you like to take a look?’, she gave me a cursory glance and said I looked okay. (I was wearing baggy tracksuit pants and socks).

Turns out I had signs of a rare form of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome, which causes death in 25 per cent of cases – hindsight is 20/20.

mum with newborn twin babies

We stayed in hospital for a week – first in ICU then the postnatal recovery ward – while we tried to get my blood pressure under control after I experienced a rare complication related to pre-eclampsia. Photo: Supplied.

I was in labour for 21 hours (I couldn’t have an epidural because of my condition), and ended up having an emergency c-section under a general anaesthetic.

I had a panic attack on the delivery table as they prepped to cut me open and the wonderful surgeon held my face in her hands and put her forehead to mine, counting me down.

She later came to my room and apologised for not properly explaining how prepping for surgery works, and debriefed me on what happened. It was incredibly healing and I am appreciative for that.

A wonderful midwife also hugged my husband while we were in ICU (I was a lot sicker than I realised) and I love her for that as well.

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But looking at that report, instances of trainees being encouraged to perform tasks outside of their scope and poor handover between shifts in the birthing suite, it sounded chillingly familiar.

My face went completely numb during labour (stroke is a big risk with HELLP) and the numbness persisted while we stayed in the hospital for an extra week until my blood pressure was under control.

I mentioned it to every nurse, doctor and midwife at every shift change and the response was always the same: a confused look along with the comment ‘that’s not in your paperwork’.

Was I just a problem being kicked down the road? Or was this poorly trained staff who were working dangerously long hours and who didn’t feel safe voicing concerns with superiors?

I know everyone’s experience is different, and some have wonderful things to say about giving birth at Centenary. But based on what I heard during my group therapy sessions at the Perinatal Wellbeing Centre in Canberra for my post-natal depression, there are a lot of mums who feel traumatised and let down by that hospital in particular.

Hopefully when the reviewers return to the unit in April they’ll see more improvements, especially as the hospital has hired more staff and are putting measures in place to better support junior medical officers.

Because I’m pregnant with my third – and I’m terrified of being transferred to Centenary if I have the same complications again.

If you’re an expectant or new parent experiencing mental distress, you can call the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306.

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It’s almost impossible for Australians to accept that their healthcare system is broken and it can’t be fixed throwing more money at it. Public health in Australia, underpinned by the abusive partner that is Medicare, is a communal sacred cow revered irrationally. “It’s so much worse in America” is an all too common rationalisation when the system’s shortcomings affect you personally. And affect you they will. Inevitably.

If you are being honest, wound’t you rather pay to receive the best possible care for yourself and your family, as you see fit, instead of being forced to fund an impersonal, generalised system that treats you as cattle? Why is it consider some sort of moral position to give up the best possible care we could afford in order to offer mediocre care at best to everyone “for free”?

That is the tradeoff that we are making as a soceity. The public system crowds out private and even not-for-profit alternatives, as the case of Calvary Hospital demostrates. It’s simply not true that the less fortunate would be left to die on the streets without “universal” healthcare. Why can’t we have more private and not-for-profit providers instead of less? The answer is that the public system doesn’t like competition and is rewarded with more funding, which you pay for, when it fails.

This is the malady affecting almost all areas of society and interactions in Australia, now. It’s hit and miss. You maybe lucky and strike someone who definitely cares about providing service and care at what used to be the standard in Australia. However, in in the past 15-20 years things have been so slipshod (more US and Asian penny punching profits) and we are expected to have the now norms of substandard attention (from supermarkets, banks, workplaces … to hospitals), no diligence, and low acceptable patterns of training.
I am being treated in a top Sydney institution with early dosage of chemo. I am a public patient. I was informed I was under the care of a team lead by a top specialist. I was wheeled into theatre for an early first afternoon appointment just after anaesthesia at 1.40pm. I was the second last patient out at 5.05pm waking up in a recovery area at 5.07pm. The last patient out was a man who apparently had a 4-4.30pm surgery appointment. I had previously been advised, it should have take 30-60minutes. When I queried the length of time, I was told the lump was bigger and deeper and that they had difficulties, locating the sentinel lymph nodes. In the end they only removed the one which they ‘could locate’ and had to ‘move a lot of things around’ .

I had undertaken the necessary nuclear medicine scans the previous afternoon. The lump and nodes were marked by the very experienced radiologist, (after 2.5 hours) as she also had had great difficulties locating the nodes.

All subsequent reviews and appointments are with Registrars and if I am lucky a specialist approves their recommendations at the end of the consult. Then after each visit, the pharmacy dispenses part of the medications (explaining I have to source the others as they do not carry them).

There was no suggested list of items to prepare and to take in with me. When discharged, I travelled 17kms with no support bra – so purchased one on my way home. I was released with a sheet of paper which again had items readily available on their website but still not with useful pertinent ‘good to know’ information.

The biggest gripe being passed from pillar to post treatment and varied standards! Lastly , treated like a last resort/ lower grade priority because of being a public patient by some of the nurses and patient advisors.

I weighed 55 kilos at nine months pregnant. No alarm bells had gone off! Diagnosed with pre eclampsia only after developing visual problems.

Tom McLuckie7:35 am 25 Feb 24

That is such a frightening story Claire. Sarah and I wish you all the best with the new bub on the way. The crux of the issues at ACT Health is the purposeful underfunding and under resourcing that has been overseen by the Barr /Rattenbury coalition. Starting in 2014 by cancelling Katy Gallaghers Hospital redevelopment plan, increased bed capacity (along with the health staff that go with it) were constantly deferred by Barr / Rattenbury to divert funding into their public transport vision. The redevelopment was massively scaled back from what was approved in 2011 when Katy was Minister for Health. Annual budget funding for health has neither kept up with inflation or population growth. The annual average cut in real terms expenditure per person in the ACT (ie, allowing for population growth and inflation) is at the rate of 3.6 per cent while activity increased by 3.1 per cent per annum. WA is the only other jurisdiction that had a decrease in real per person expenditure, however, it also had an annual average decrease in hospital separations. I feel for the staff in our Health system. It has been through purposeful reduction in funding that situations like yours occured, and that decrease in funding has been a deliberate funding decision made over years by the current ACT Governments as Health was not the priority program for the ACT.

You have no idea what you’re talking about. This kind of thing has been an ongoing issue within the ACT Hospital system for well over 25 years. I know retired nurses who worked there then and it was a major issue THEN, it hasn’t ever gotten any better.
It’s the ingrained management system. It needs a complete overhaul.
Instead of offering an investigation into it and fixing that the ONLY thing the Libs have ever offered is more buildings- more money for their developer mates.

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