Ben Stevenson can’t forget the gut-wrenching screams.
“Daddy, daddy I’m OK, I want to go home – don’t let them hurt me,” his son Thomas was yelling.
Mr Stevenson recalled being on top of his six-year-old, pinning the boy against the operating table as he screeched in agony in the Mildura Base Hospital room.
The father would later learn that Thomas had come close to death. Mr Stevenson believes that if the family had not insisted on more medical help, and the subsequent surgery, his little boy may not be here today.
Their story is just one of a stream of troubling claims by ex-patients who have spoken out about the profit-driven model they say is causing a dangerous downward spiral in quality of care at the last remaining privately-run public hospital in Victoria.
“I wouldn’t even take my dog to go and get treated there,” Mr Stevenson told The New Daily.
But, like all public patients in the regional city in Victoria’s far north-west, Mr Stevenson has no other choice when facing a medical emergency; the next public hospital is 150 kilometres away in South Australia.
Etched into Mr Stevenson’s memory is the trauma he watched his son unnecessarily endure.
Ex-patient Carol Brandrick has similarly disturbing flashbacks. The Mildura resident needed ongoing therapy and sleeping pills to combat the memories of her hospital stay.
It was there that she woke up in the middle of an excruciating surgery. Still under numbing drugs, she couldn’t move, but she could feel every pinch and prod.
In June last year, retired underground miner Bob Warburton sat for more than three hours in the waiting room of the hospital’s emergency department. He was clutching his stomach and wincing in pain.
He was sent home with a packet of Panadeine Forte.
“The emergency department needs to be shut down … It’s worse than the third world,” Mr Warburton said.
“There was no empathy in any way, shape or form.”
A scan at the alternative hospital, Mildura Private, later revealed the 66-year-old had a kidney stone. Mr Warburton required immediate surgery.
‘His brain was starting to shut down’
The Stevenson family’s nightmare began in 2017. Thomas was rushed to the emergency department after suffering bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea.
Mr Stevenson remembers his son was in and out of consciousness. But, he said, doctors reassured the family Thomas was just suffering gastro.
Mr Stevenson and his wife Kirsty said they demanded a blood test for their son but were told repeatedly “No, he’s fine”.
They persisted and Thomas was finally granted a test. Alarmingly, it found his potassium – a chemical responsible for keeping the heart beating – had dropped to critically low levels.
Nurses pumped potassium back into Thomas’s body, warning that without it he would not have made it through the night.
Yet, doctors remained adamant Thomas had gastro, Mr Stevenson said. Ongoing tummy aches were put down to a muscle tear.
Four days on, Thomas’s “irate” parents were becoming increasingly fearful and requested more tests.
Their little boy was at times vomiting every half hour.
An ultrasound later that day showed Thomas’s appendix was inflamed, and exploration surgery found it had “completely ruptured and was borderline gangrene”, Mr Stevenson said.
“The surgeon said that was the worst case he’d ever seen in such a young child and they were lucky they got in when they did.”
Thomas was discharged from hospital the day after surgery. But the problems didn’t end there.
A week later, the family was on a trip to Bendigo when Thomas suddenly slumped over his dinner.
At that regional hospital, doctors examining Thomas advised that his appendix had likely ruptured before he arrived at MBH.
They told Mr Stevenson that the critically low potassium level was actually a sign that Thomas’s brain had begun shutting down.
‘Like being in a coffin’
Carol Brandrick, 60, remembers waking up on a MBH operating table with a green mesh over her face. It was November 2015 and Ms Brandrick was having a small device known as a port-a-cath implanted in her right shoulder so doctors could more easily administer her chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer.
She said the surgeon had incorrectly positioned the port-a-cath and was trying to realign it when the drug that put her to sleep wore off. She was immobilised by anaesthetic from the neck down.
“The surgeon kept pushing my face away as he continued operating,” she said.
“It was like being put in a coffin.
“I felt them going in there to pull my skin apart … There was a lot of pushing and pulling on the port-a-cath to position it correctly.”
MBH formally apologised to Ms Brandrick, acknowledging she had an “unsatisfactory experience” and paying for her to receive six therapy sessions.
In October, Ms Brandrick was again forced to use MBH after falling, and breaking her pinkie finger.
Two doctors failed to detect the injury when examining X-rays of her finger, which is now permanently disfigured as a result of the misdiagnosis.
Mr Stevenson, Ms Brandrick and Mr Warburton are among a growing number of residents who want to see their local hospital managed by the state government instead of a multibillion-dollar global health care company.
The complaints come as the Victorian government tosses up whether to renew its contract with the hospital management – a deal forged by the Kennett government in 1998 to slash public healthcare costs.
Ramsay Health Care is contracted to manage the publicly-owned hospital until 2020, with the Victorian government to decide in October whether that agreement should be extended, potentially until 2022.
According to data released by government agency Victorian Managed Insurance Authority (VMIA) exclusively to The New Daily, 23 insurance claims were made to the government insurer in relation to MBH in the decade to last June, with payments totalling approximately $2.28 million.
“MBH is in the mid-range of claims activity as compared to its Australian Institute of Health and Welfare peer group,” a VMIA spokesperson said.
What began as a fairly standard Facebook page for MBH patients to share their experiences, both good and bad, quickly metamorphosed into a community lobby group fighting to return the hospital to public management.
Since its creation in 2015, Noel Pound, founder of Mildura Hospital Conversation, would sometimes receive several complaints weekly from locals expressing their “shock at the adverse events” they say occurred at the hospital.
MBH is “very, very rarely” complimented, he said.
MBH recorded 129 complaints in the 2017-18 financial year, 123 complaints in 2016-17 and 107 complaints the year before, according to its annual reports.
The total number of complaints was unclear in its 2014-15 and 2013-14 reports. The complaints were undisclosed in 2012-13.
A Ramsay Health Care spokesperson declined to comment on individual cases but said MBH “performs within expected parameters” and “complies with the nurse-to-patient ratios and midwife-to-patient ratios as set by the legislation in Victoria”.
Read The New Daily‘s Tuesday morning edition for part two of our Mildura Base Hospital investigation.