A Hospital Sent Home Multiple Indigenous Patients With A Deadly Disease In Regional Queensland

"They're not helping us, they're killing us."

Doomadgee Health

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Four Corners investigation has shed light on racial medical bias and discrimination in regional Queensland.

Multiple young women have died in the last three years in the predominantly Indigenous town of Doomadgee from a disease that is widely eradicated in the world, after all being turned away from their local hospital.

‘Heart Failure’ examines how the largely eradicated Rheumatic Heart Disease continues to claim lives in their community, despite health solutions being available across Australia for more than half a decade, due to inadequate public health measures and government policies.

The episode, led by reporter Louise Milligan, looks back at the deaths of three patients in Doomadgee — all of whom were sent home from Doomadgee hospital despite presenting with severe symptoms. They died soon after.

Standards Of Care

Betty Booth came down with a severe case of RHD in 2019, and was assessed by a doctor as needing urgent heart surgery, with weekly checkups afterwards. Neither of those things happened when she tried to be admitted to Doomadgee hospital on 12 separate occasions with worsening symptoms.

Booth was given paracetamol and antibiotics and sent home every time, with no note of her diagnosis in the hospital’s records. Upon her health getting to a critical level, the hospital finally arranged to fly her out as a non-urgent case, from an air ambulance in Townsville more than 1000 kilometres away, despite Mount Isa being closer.

“Them kids, they want to have a future. They’re not helping us, they’re killing us. They’re not helping us. They don’t care about us,” said Booth’s cousin. She died an hour later, with the plane landing two hours too late.

Lack Of Trust

Mother of three Adele Sandy had been living with RHD since she was about six years old. When her symptoms started getting bad, her sister begged the hospital to send her to a larger facility on multiple occasions. The basic checks weren’t done despite Sandy presenting with heart failure, while their internal records say she had none of the severe swelling associated with the disease — a fact her family disputes.

“It’s very awful the way they do that to Aboriginal people,” said Sandy’s mother. “I’m frightened to go to the hospital, I don’t go there because they don’t attend to you or say hello to you, or ask you want you want or what can they do for us. They are very rude.”

Her loved ones weren’t even allowed to visit her and were forced to stand outside in the sweltering heat instead of in the indoor waiting room, and sadly weren’t with her when she passed away.

Basic Human Rights

Booth’s best friend Shakaya George was also living with RHD. Her uncle Alec Doomadgee described the 17-year-old as “full of life” with a “smile that could light up the room”. Having already undergone two open-heart surgeries as a child, George fell gravely ill while on a trip to the Northern Territory just weeks before her aunt Adele Sandy’s funeral.

George was discharged from two hospitals on the way back interstate, but when she finally returned back to Doomadgee, she was sent home with Panadol. Her family drove her out to Burketown instead, where she was flown to Mount Isa, and then Townsville.

More than a week later, she was flown to the state capital for urgent surgery. “By the time she got the Brisbane, she had been to six different hospitals,” said Mr Doomadgee. “This whole time, this whole period, she had been in heart failure.”

After her procedure, she went into multiple organ failure, and her family made the decision to turn off her life support.

“If that was a white kid in middle-class Sydney, there’d be an uproar, but it’s not a white kid, it’s an Aboriginal kid living in the bush. Does that child deserve any less?” said Pat Turner from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

More Accountability

The dismissal of Indigenous women and teens in need of urgent medical care continues to take place across the country. In 2016, a 16-year-old died in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia after being turned away from a hospital because doctors thought she had drug-related symptoms, when she actually had severe pelvic inflammatory disease.

Both Health Minister Greg Hunt and Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt declined to speak with Four Corners on the national issue. The show said that the Federal Government would commit to eradicating RHD in Indigenous communities by 2030, while Queensland’s Palaszczuk Government will soon announce a multi-million dollar plan to tackle the disease too.

An inquest was announced last week into the deaths of three Doomadgee women in July by Queensland Coroner’s to look into “the adequacy of the care and treatment received, and any missed opportunities generally for the prevention and awareness of RHD/acute rheumatic fever”.

The full episode can be found here.