David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Family told of equipment fault by coroner

Vicki Bradshaw with her children Matthew, 5, and Adrian, 8, and a picture of her and her mother Cherie. Photo / Richard Robinson
Vicki Bradshaw with her children Matthew, 5, and Adrian, 8, and a picture of her and her mother Cherie. Photo / Richard Robinson

The daughter of a woman who died during an emergency callout in which an ambulance officer struggled to make a defibrillator work did not know for months of problems with the equipment.

Vicki Bradshaw, of Milford, said she found out through the coroner there was a fault with the defibrillator used when St John was called to help her mother, Cherie Wells-Garrett.

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Mrs Wells-Garrett died on her 61st birthday in October last year in Raglan, with coroner Peter Ryan ruling she died after a pulmonary embolism brought on by recent knee-replacement surgery.

But his report also noted the failure of the defibrillator - an issue revealed by the Herald yesterday as occurring in three cases in which patients lost their lives.

The failures prompted St John to introduce a programme to replace batteries before they exceeded their two-year life span.

Families of those who died were not contacted after St John clinical reviews found the equipment failure would have made no difference.

Mrs Bradshaw said she struggled to receive information from St John after studying phone records and finding the emergency call was made on October 22, 2013, while her date of death was recorded as the following day. She said she eventually resorted to having her lawyer seek the information.

Even then, she said the detail sought didn't come until the coronial hearing in April.

The eventual report, and accompanying letter to the coroner from St John, has yet to fully resolve the question in Mrs Bradshaw's mind.

"I have since had a coroner's report saying that even though the first defibrillator appeared to be faulty ... the failure of the defibrillator did not affect the outcome. But really how will we ever know?

"We haven't been told what was wrong with the defibrillator - just that it appeared to be faulty."

She said St John should have made contact with the family to explain what had happened.

St John medical director Dr Tony Smith described the 111 callout in a letter to the coroner, saying the call was made at 11.26pm and a single-crewed ambulance arrived seven minutes later.

"A defibrillator was attached but the screen showed dotted lines instead of a cardiac rhythm. Attempts to troubleshoot this issue were unsuccessful."

Other emergency staff arrived, including paramedics in an ambulance from Hamilton, but Mrs Wells-Garrett could not be revived despite attempting to do so for 45 minutes, he said.

Dr Smith told the coroner it would have made no difference if the first defibrillator had worked properly. He said the faulty defibrillator was taken out of service and no fault could be found so it was sent to its manufacturer in the United States.

A St John spokeswoman said she would make contact with Mrs Bradshaw today to understand her concerns and see what the ambulance service could do to respond.

St John has since installed back-up defibrillators in its ambulances.

Clarification & correction
Three people who lost their lives in cases in which defibrillators failed did not die as a result of the equipment failures, St John Ambulance has reiterated. While this finding was reported on May 12, St John has taken exception to the headlines: 'Three deaths as defibrillators fail' and 'St John gaffe: 3 end up dead'. In another case, a headline on May 13 was incorrect, when it stated a North Shore woman had battled St John for information on faulty gear, after the death of her mother. In fact, the woman had sought legal advice on other matters arising from the case. The Herald regrets that error and is happy to reiterate St John's findings on the other cases.

- NZ Herald

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