Widow hopes Royal Darwin Hospital procedural changes will prevent future pain after eight-year wait for answers
Joan Fensom (right) was left without answers after the passing of her husband David (left). (Facebook)
A widow who was kept waiting eight years for answers about the death of her husband following surgery at Royal Darwin Hospital (RDH) said she hoped a response to the case by the NT Health Department would trigger significant change for the future.
- The Top End Health Service has pledged to improve communication procedures
- A coroner’s report found the cases of two elderly men who died while in care at RDH could have been better handled
- Widow Joan Fensom said she heard from a doctor just once during an 11-day period when her husband was in hospital
The Northern Territory’s Health Department yesterday tabled its response to a damning 2018 report by coroner Greg Cavanagh into the death of two elderly men in Darwin, David Fensom, 67. in 2010, and Henry George Wilson, 77, in 2016.
Eight years on from the death of her husband Mr Fensom, Joan Fensom continues to grieve for the “love of her life”, and said her world had not been the same since he died from organ failure in 2010.
The engineering sales representative and Darwin Festival volunteer had undergone surgery five times over an 11-day period, during which Ms Fensom was consulted about his condition by doctors just once.
“Even after all this time it still hurts,” she said.
“I never saw a doctor for the whole 11 days that David was in there, until I knew he wasn’t going to survive, then a doctor … put his head around the curtain and said, ‘oh you’ve been in this position before haven’t you?’
“‘Well no, not this bad’ [I said], then he turned around and walked off.”
Widow left without answers
In both cases, Judge Cavanagh found communication between the health service and the family was poor, the death was not reported to the coroner, significant levels of pain were overlooked and appropriate diagnosis’ were delayed.
“It is not right that Ms Fensom had to wait eight years to find out why her husband died,” Mr Cavanagh said.
“When, if there had been good communication before and after the death, with families fully appreciating the dangers, the illness, the risks, we wouldn’t have to go through coronial inquiry after coronial inquiry where the main issue turns out to be bad communication with grieving families.”
He found Ms Fentom was given no sufficient explanation about why her husband died, and the first information she received was from his death certificate.
“I was just left. So I’ve had a lot to deal with over the last eight years and I still can’t handle it,” she told the inquest.
“As far as I’m concerned, when I lost David, I lost my life as I knew it.”
In his recommendations, Judge Cavanagh called for an audit of the Top End Health Service’s communication procedures, “to ensure proper communication with families during treatment and after death”.
“It does not seem too much to expect that the institution would check on and speak to families after the unexpected death of a loved one and ensure that they have been afforded proper communication, open disclosure and their reasonable needs met,” he said.
Service pledges better communication
The health department’s response tabled in Parliament this week said staff of the Top End Health Service would be “implementing a ‘goals of care’ program aimed at providing end-of-life care”.
“This will include communication with patient families’ both pre and post death to ensure an understanding of risks associated with end-of-life care interventions,” the response read.
“The Cognitive Institute of Queensland has been approached to provide open disclosure training programs [to] the NT Health staff in 2019 and is developing an open disclosure plan for post inquest communication.”
The department has also updated its procedures for reporting deaths, the response read, “to better identify critical incidents that must be reported to the coroner”.
Ms Fensom, who remains upset about how she was treated by RDH doctors during her husband’s hospitalisation, said she hoped the department’s response would bring about systemic change.
“Well, it’s never going to bring David back, but if it’s going to save a few other people from what I’ve been through, let’s hope it does,” she said.
A statement from Health Minister Natasha Fyles contained in the response said she was satisfied the department was “taking the necessary steps with respect to those recommendations”.