The family of Kawerau man Gavin Sadlier are demanding answers from St John after he died in an ambulance and was driven to a funeral home instead of Whakatāne Hospital to his waiting partner.

Sadlier's partner of 36 years, Sandy Hohepa, said Sadlier was alive when loaded into an ambulance after suffering a suspected heart attack at work in Kawerau on June 20.

Hohepa was told she would need to travel in the first ambulance and her 53-year-old partner would travel behind in a second ambulance.

After arriving at hospital and trying to find where her partner was, she was eventually told by a hospital staff member he had died and his body had been taken straight to Willetts Funeral Services in the ambulance.


She said the family was only able to view his body for about 15 minutes at the funeral home about four hours later. There was a delay in the viewing, she said, because they had to wait for police supervision and were told this was standard practice when a coroner orders an autopsy.

The autopsy was performed in Hamilton and his body was released to the family the following night.

Steven Butler, of Willetts Funeral Service, said it was not unusual for bodies to be taken straight to funeral homes if a person died in an ambulance.

However, he said he understood the Sadlier family's point of view because this had not been clearly communicated to them.

Hohepa said the family had not been told any details about what happened after Sadlier left Kawerau in the ambulance, if ambulance officers tried to resuscitate him or why he was not taken to hospital.

The family only knew he died in the ambulance because his death certificate said he died en route, Hohepa said.

St John told the Rotorua Daily Post an investigation was being completed and the organisation had already apologised to the family for a delay in responding.

On July 1, Sadlier's sister, Vi Pirini, wrote to St John on behalf of the family to seek answers and a full apology.


Pirini, in her complaint, questioned the events which eventually led to family members being told of his death at the hospital in a way that assumed they already knew, adding to their trauma.

St John has twice delayed responses, offering an apology for the first delay, and has said it would respond this Friday.

Pirini received acknowledgement on July 4 from St John of the family's initial complaint and advised it would reply within 20 working days.

Pirini emailed St John on July 31 reminding the organisation she was expecting its response on August 1. On August 2, Pirini received an email on behalf of district operations manager Jeremy Goodes that asked her to accept his "unreserved apologies for failing to advise you of a delay in responding to your complaint".

The email said St John had been "actively working through an investigation and we have been formulating these findings into a response for you".

It said St John head of patient safety and quality Cheryl des Landes would provide a further review of the findings and a response would be given to the family by August 9.

On August 9 just before 5pm, Pirini emailed St John asking where the response was. She was given a reply advising des Landes had experienced a family bereavement and would require another week.

Pirini said while she sympathised with des Landes' own family bereavement, she questioned why no one else within St John could have answered their questions.

A St John spokeswoman today told the Rotorua Daily Post she was unable to comment as the investigation was not yet finished. She said St John had already apologised to the family for the delay.

Hohepa said she did not have an issue with St John in general but just wanted answers mainly to ensure no other family would go through the same ordeal.

"We just want to know how this happened? Why take him to a funeral home because there's no doctors there to pronounce him dead?

"It was just an unnecessary stress on top of it all not knowing where he was."