The family of a young, pregnant Aboriginal woman who died after numerous attempts to seek help at a New South Wales hospital is demanding answers at an inquest that has begun in Gundagai.
Family and friends packed the gallery at the inquest, called following the death of 27-year-old Naomi Williams and her unborn child.
Coroner Harriet Grahame heard Ms Williams made 20 visits to Tumut Hospital, in southern NSW, and GPs over seven months, but her deteriorating condition and underlying bacterial infection was not picked up and she died of sepsis at the hospital in January 2016.
Ms Williams’ godmother Aunty Sonia Piper said they want to know what happened.
“We’re not here to lay any blame or to look to condemn anybody, we’re here to remember Naomi, remember her baby, and to get some answers,” she said.
Best friend Telea Bulger said Naomi was a happy, healthy, outgoing person until the sickness began and is questioning why she was not given the treatment she needed.
She said she watched her friend deteriorate over seven months.
“It’s hard to hear it all over again in such clinical terms but that gives us hope that the fight’s begun and we’re starting to get some answers from it. So a bit of conflicting emotions,” she said.
“We just want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, whether it’s an aboriginal person, a pregnant woman, anybody.”
A painful end
The coroner heard that in her final visit to the hospital, Ms Williams had sought help from a friend to drive her to the hospital because she was in so much pain that she could “barely move”.
When it was suggested that she call an ambulance, she said that she couldn’t afford it and ended up driving herself.
She was sent home with off-the-shelf painkillers and died 12 hours later.
In previous visits to the hospital and GPs, Ms Williams presented with nausea, vomiting, sometimes dehydration, occasionally diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
Nurse Shirley Adams told the inquest that there was no alert system to tell her whether a person had presented on multiple occasions.
Coroner Harriet Grahame is reviewing the systems in place at Tumut Hospital and the level of cultural training for staff.
Ms Grahame said on the night before Ms Williams died an Aboriginal health worker was not called to emergency and that information about how the Aboriginal health system worked was relevant to her inquiry, given her role to address public health and safety.
She said Broken Hill Hospital had extended its Aboriginal health workers to be available on-call and after hours and it was an issue she was interested in.
Ms Williams was a Wiradjuri woman from the Tumut-Brungle Aboriginal community.
Her godmother Aunty Sonia said Aboriginal people were entitled to the same level of care as the rest of the population.
“All the times she went to hospital being discharged, I keep saying to everybody ‘why wasn’t she sent to a specialist somewhere in Sydney or Canberra to really find out what was wrong with her?’ because they were just giving her Panadol and sending her home,” she said.
“And if that poor woman was vomiting all the time and being sick, what was that doing to that little baby inside of her?”
Lawyer George Newhouse is representing the family.
“What they really want from this process is justice,” he said.
“They want the truth to come out and they want to make sure that no family has to experience anything like that again in the future.
“And they want their people, Aboriginal people here and around Australia, to get appropriate levels of care in a culturally safe way.”
Ms Williams’ mother did not attend day two of the inquest, but Mr Newhouse explained she hoped to return this week.
“She found the process of yesterday extremely traumatic,” he said.
“She is hoping to get back as soon as possible and is concerned about what is going on, and yet pleased that the process of the inquest is underway and that we are getting to the facts of the matter.”
The inquest is scheduled to run in Gundagai for the rest of the week before going to Sydney for further hearings.