The family of a pregnant Aboriginal woman who died after 18 visits to Tumut Hospital have told a coroner she felt like doctors were not taking her seriously.
Naomi Williams, 27, visited the hospital repeatedly in the seven months leading up to her death complaining of extreme vomiting and pain.
She died of a heart attack on January 1, 2016, with an autopsy later revealing the cause of her death was “almost certainly” treatable sepsis – a condition that was never picked up by the medical professionals treating her.
On Friday, best friend Talea Bulger told Gundagai Coroner’s Court that Naomi started feeling uncomfortable going to the hospital after a nurse greeted her by saying “you’re here again”.
“She said it made her feel stupid to go back,” Ms Bulger said.
On the final of her 18 visits, Ms Bulger said she struggled to get Naomi to go to the hospital after she felt like she had been shrugged off by staff for months.
“I tried to push her, to suggest again that she go to the hospital because she couldn’t stop vomiting, but she said she didn’t want to go, she didn’t feel comfortable, and she said she felt they were sick of seeing her,” she said.
Naomi did drive herself to hospital that night – she was given two Panadol, discharged, and died 14 hours later along with her unborn baby boy.
Her mother, Sharon Williams, told the court Naomi went to Canberra to be with her a few weeks before her death when as she grew more and more frustrated with the hospital’s treatment.
“She phoned me feeling as though she wasn’t being heard, she didn’t feel comfortable going back up there, she said the same thing was happening over and over,” Ms Williams said.
Ms Williams had already written to the hospital’s health service manager Lorraine O’Sullivan, who worked with Naomi’s grandmother for 25 years, pleading with them to stop referring her to drug and alcohol and mental health treatments and instead refer her to a specialist.
“Naomi feels her illness is being overlooked and she is being stereotyped as some sort of drug addict,” Ms Williams wrote.
“Because of the relationship we had with the hospital over many years, I assumed that they'd take care of her,” she told the court.
Ms O’Sullivan replied, assuring Ms Williams her daughter was receiving “world class care” at the hospital.
Ms Williams said that did not appear to be the case at all when Naomi arrived in Canberra.
“She looked awful, she looked nothing like Naomi, she lost so much weight, she was pale, she was sunken in the face, and she certainly didn’t look five or six months pregnant,” she said.
Her partner Michael Lampe, who was also left to mourn their unborn son, recalled also having to urge Naomi to go to the hospital the night before she died.
”I mentioned the hospital first – she hated to go up there because they really couldn’t find out what was wrong with her, she felt like she wasn’t getting treated right,” Mr Lampe said.
He said he was shocked when she returned home that same night, considering how sick she had been, and that she only got worse as the hours approaching her death passed.
“She had vomit bags from the hospital with her because she could hardly get out of bed,” Mr Lampe said.
“She couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, and couldn’t feel her legs… she was trying to gasp for air.”
Mr Lampe then phoned Ms Bulger, who rushed to the house to help and found her cold and unable to move.
“She was laying on the lounge, she was very pale, very sweaty, and she could hardly move,” Ms Bulger said.
“She was crying, upset – I couldn’t understand what she was saying – she was mentioning there was something wrong with her legs, and I understood her to mean she couldn’t feel her legs.”
They called triple-0, but Naomi went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance and was pronounced dead on arrival.
The inquest, which ran all week, explored whether the fact Naomi was an Aboriginal woman had any bearing on how she was treated at the hospital.
Speaking outside court, Naomi’s godmother and Wiradjuri elder Aunty Sonia Piper said she hoped the inquest would help secure better health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians.
“A lot of Aboriginal people don’t know how to express themselves and they don’t like to be asked questions, and we put our lives in their hands,” Ms Piper said.
“I think we’ve got the same right as everybody else to get proper care – a lot of our people do pass away at an early age – and I wouldn’t like to see this happen ever again.”
Despite how emotionally difficult it had been to relive Naomi’s final days, Ms Bulger said the family felt like they were closer to getting some answers.
“We do feel that, now that we’ve got Naomi’s story across and it’s been heard, hopefully we’re going to find out why this happened to Naomi and her baby,” Ms Bulger said.
“It has been a very emotional day and a very emotional week for all of us, but now we do feel that we're on a bit of a path to the answers.”
The inquest will continue in Sydney next March when a series of expert witnesses are called to give evidence.
Until then, Naomi’s family said they will continue to remember her as the happy, energetic, and family-focused daughter, partner, and friend she was for 27 years.