September 22, 2022

Medical experts say antibiotics in survey could have saved Melbourne mother who died of sepsis

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

The 37-year-old lawyer died of multiple organ failure caused by sepsis a day after attending Holmesglen Private Hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms.

At 2:12 a.m. on August 15, 2017, O’Brien delivered her stillborn baby at 18 weeks. His life support was turned off at 1:55 p.m.

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Her family asked Victorian coroner John Cain to make recommendations for systemic changes to private hospitals, believing her death was preventable.

After eating a chicken sandwich for lunch, O’Brien fell ill with vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Annie O’Brien. Credit: Provided

When she presented to the private Holmesglen Hospital on August 14, her fever had reached 40.3°C.

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

Shi gave her morphine for her 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 O’Brien should have been given antibiotics at Holmesglen, particularly after she began to suffer from back pain.

A woman was transferred to St Vincent’s Private Hospital, where she gave birth and died. Credit: AAP

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

“It behooves us to reconsider the diagnosis if things don’t turn out the way one would expect for a simple condition.

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

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

“If she had been given antibiotics at Holmesglen Hospital, at all times, she would have had a better chance of surviving than if she hadn’t,” she said.

Eddy said doctors should have considered possible sepsis from the moment Ms O’Brien arrived at the hospital.

When Shi arranged for O’Brien to be transferred to St Vincent, fearing she might have a miscarriage, she did not tell the hospital about her back pain, high temperature or abdominal pain.

“Is this the proper conduct of an emergency physician?” Coroner’s Assistant Counsel Sharon Keeling asked Eddy.

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

“It is the attending physician’s responsibility to provide complete clinical information, as they transfer responsibility and accountability for this patient’s care to another official.”

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