Listeria outbreak: Why did my wife have to die?

By Anna Ferrick

The husband of a woman who died during last year's listeria outbreak is demanding to know why a life-saving brochure was not given to his wife during her hospital treatment.

Robin Hutchinson said at his request, the brochure called Avoiding Listeria, which was issued by the Ministry of Health and contained information on the food-borne illness, was now routinely handed out to immuno-suppressed patients both at Hawke's Bay Hospital and nationwide.

Patricia Hutchinson had been in and out of Hawke's Bay Hospital from February to May 2012 for issues relating to Crohns disease, which she was diagnosed with in November 2011.

She was prescribed azathioprine, an immuno-suppressant, to help with issues related to Crohns disease.

Mr Hutchinson said they discussed the side effects of the drug with a doctor but were at no time told that the drug could increase her risk of attracting infections, including listeria.

During various stints in hospital with Crohns-related issues, Mrs Hutchinson ate hospital food, including cold meats.

The brochure lists cold meats as an "unsafe" food for people who are at serious risk of attracting the illness.

Mrs Hutchinson was diagnosed with listeriosis on May 18. She had been admitted to hospital a week earlier suffering stroke-like symptoms.

After Mrs Hutchinson had contracted listeria, Mr Hutchinson was approached by a Ministry of Health investigator to identify where the bacteria could have been contracted from.

At the end of the meeting, she handed Mr Hutchinson the pamphlet.

"Well, I almost hit the roof. If there was this information around, this life-saving information, why were we not given it? It's no use to me after she has already got listeria," he said.

"I have never made a complaint saying that the specialist did wrong. My complaint is that a standard pamphlet was not given to me. I expected him to take two seconds, no longer, to hand over a brochure, especially prepared for this purpose by the Ministry of Health. I can't understand that."

Mrs Hutchinson fell deep into a coma as the month progressed. Doctors warned that every day she remained in a coma, her chances of survival became slimmer .

On June 5 he made the decision to switch off the life support keeping his wife of 46 years alive.

For the past year, he kept quiet about his experience.

He penned a letter to the DHB with three demands - an apology, an assurance the brochure be handed out to every patient with a lowered immunity, and costs to cover his wife's funeral.

So far the first two requests had been met.

ACC and the health and disability commissioner declined his request to cover funeral costs but a review was scheduled for August 15. Mr Hutchinson said he has no doubt his wife contracted listeria from the hospital and it was the hospital's responsibility to make sure his wife was not being fed foods that could compromise her health.

"It's an error that cost at least my wife her life.

"Had she been told there were foods that put her at serious risk, that's Ministry of Health terminology not mine, we wouldn't have eaten them.

"When there were offers of ham sandwiches, if that's what the contaminated substance was, if she had known she shouldn't eat that, she would have declined it and had an alternative dish. She was denied that choice."

He said the fact that the Hawke's Bay Hospital and the other hospitals nationwide are now supplying the information to patients and are monitoring the diets of individual patients means they should have been doing it all along.

"Why did it take two deaths to get them to do that?"

An investigation was launched following the death of Mr Hutchinson's wife and an 81-year-old patient who also died from listeria in the Hawke's Bay Hospital.

During the investigation, listeria was found in chilled, ready-to-eat meats supplied to the hospital by a Napier-based company.

Charges have been laid against the company and are due to be heard in Napier District Court this week.

Last week, DHB chief executive Kevin Snee told Hawke's Bay Today the hospital no longer provided chilled pre-cooked meat to patients.

"HBDHB kitchens now cook the meat that will be used as cold meat, and it has developed a policy that gives guidance to help nursing staff identify patients that need a special diet that eliminates foods which have a listeria risk."

It's too little too late for Mr Hutchinson, whose questions remain.

"Why were the HBDHB serving contaminated meat to my wife when they knew of the risks associated with immune suppressed patients?"

- Hawkes Bay Today

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