Button battery inquest opens: 'They never believed us'

Button battery death inquest begins

"They just weren’t listening," say the parents of one-year-old Isabella Rees about staff at Sunshine Hospital during an inquest into her death.

Three times, one-year-old Isabella Rees was sent home from hospital, as doctors wrote off vomiting and fever as symptoms of an infection.

Her mother now says the doctors told her there was no need for an ultrasound or x-rays.

On the fourth visit, after her mother had found her covered in blood, an X-ray discovered a small silver button battery lodged inside her. By then, it was too late. Isabella would pass away hours later, despite intensive resuscitation efforts.

The death of one-year-old Isabella Rees is the subject of a coronial inquiry.
The death of one-year-old Isabella Rees is the subject of a coronial inquiry. Photo: Bella's Footprints / Facebook

“We stood with her for 10 minutes, and held her hand. And then they called time of death,” her mother, Allison, told the Coroners Court of Victoria on Monday.

“We were just disregarded and turned away [by doctors]. We felt like hypochondriacs. They never believed us, they just weren’t listening.”

If swallowed, button batteries can be lethal. Ms Rees still does not know how her daughter found one.

The inquest, before coroner Caitlin English, will this week probe the safety of the batteries, as well as Isabella’s care at Sunshine Hospital.

The hospital’s barrister, Arushan Pillay, suggested to Ms Rees that “frustration and anger ... [have] coloured and influenced the statements you’ve made to the court”.

“I don’t believe I have written in anger. I’ve written the facts,” she replied. Earlier, she told him: “It was a preventable death. She could have been saved.”

Advertisement

The case has already drawn comparisons to that of Sunshine Coast four-year-old Summer Steer, who swallowed a button battery in 2013. Despite several hospital visits, and vomiting blood, she was wrongly diagnosed and sent home before dying.

Isabella presented at Sunshine Hospital’s emergency department on January 16, 2015, crying and vomiting. Rob, Isabella’s dad, was worried she might have swallowed something; he had seen a large battery in her hand.

Later, he would recall he’d changed button batteries on the family’s remote controls that day.

Doctors believed Isabella's symptoms were caused by an infection.
Doctors believed Isabella's symptoms were caused by an infection. Photo: AAP

But doctors suspected the symptoms came from a viral infection, and after the symptoms abated they sent Isabella and her mother home.

After three days, Bella was running a fever and vomiting. “She was on fire. She wanted to be held all the time. She refused to eat,” Ms Rees told the court.

In Bella's nappy, Ms Rees found a tiny piece of water balloon and asked doctors if that could be causing the illness, or if she might have swallowed something else, the inquest heard.

She told the court she suggested an ultrasound, but doctors said the balloon would pass through itself.

A urine sample showed evidence Bella had a urinary tract infection, as doctors had suspected. She was sent home with a prescription for antibiotics. She seemed to be improving, Ms Rees said.

On February 4, Ms Rees came in to Bella’s darkened room to comfort her crying daughter.

“I picked her up in the dark... She was a little bit wet. I flicked on the light and saw blood, a lot of blood. Her clothes were totally saturated by all the blood, but she was calm, happy, talking.”

She rushed her daughter to hospital, where she was X-rayed for the first time. There was a large circle, the size of a ten-cent piece. Ms Rees thought it was a coin.

Bella had lost a lot of blood, and doctors tried a transfusion as she lay on her mother’s stomach in a hospital bed. She vomited more blood. They put an oxygen mask on her, and pulled Ms Rees away. A code blue was called.

“We couldn’t see her, they closed the door. They kept updating us. They told me they’d resuscitated her. They told me to call Rob and get him here. I just wanted to run to her but I couldn’t.”

Bella died from cardiac arrest, on the operating table at Sunshine Hospital.

The inquest continues.