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Emily Woods

Antibiotics could have saved dying mum

Annie O’Brien would likely have survived a sepsis infection if she had been given antibiotics after arriving at a Melbourne hospital, medical experts have told an inquest. 

The 37-year-old lawyer died from multi-organ failure caused by sepsis one day after going to Holmesglen Private Hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms.

At 2.12am on August 15, 2017, Ms O’Brien delivered her baby stillborn at 18 weeks. Her life support was turned off at 1.55pm.

Her family has called on Victoria’s State Coroner John Cain to make recommendations for systemic changes to private hospitals, believing her death was preventable.

After eating a chicken sandwich for lunch, Ms O’Brien became sick with vomiting, diarrhoea and a fever.

When she presented at Holmesglen Private Hospital on August 14, her fever had reached 40.3C.

Holmesglen’s sole emergency department doctor, Hui Li Shi, diagnosed Ms O’Brien with gastroenteritis, treating her with paracetamol and fluids.

Dr Shi gave her morphine for back pain before her membranes spontaneously ruptured and she was transferred to St Vincent’s Private Hospital, where she later delivered her baby and died. 

Four medical experts told an inquest on Monday that Ms O’Brien should have been given antibiotics at Holmesglen, particularly after she began suffering from back pain.

“Significant back pain, new back pain, is a concerning symptom,” Geelong emergency physician David Eddy said

“It behoves us to to reconsider the diagnosis if things are not going as you would expect it to go for a simple condition.

“She should have been given intravenous antibiotics as soon as it became apparent she was deteriorating beyond a diagnosis of simple gastroenteritis.”

Sydney Royal Hospital for Women gynaecologist Lucy Bowyer said Ms O’Brien would have had a more than 50 per cent chance of surviving if she was given antibiotics at Holmesglen.

“If she had received antibiotics at Holmesglen hospital, at any time, she would have been more likely to survive than had she not,” she said.

Dr Eddy said doctors should have been looking at a potential sepsis infection from the moment Ms O’Brien arrived at the hospital.

When Dr Shi organised for Ms O’Brien’s transfer to St Vincent’s, fearing she was miscarrying her baby, she did not tell the hospital about her back pain, high temperature or abdominal pain.

“Is that appropriate emergency physician conduct?” counsel assisting the coroner Sharon Keeling asked Dr Eddy.

“No, it’s essential clinical information in the context,” he replied.

“It’s the responsibility of the referring doctor to provide full clinical information, because they’re transferring the responsibility and the accountability for the care of that patient to another official.”

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