24 Oct 2018

Anonymous letter reopens inquest into medical student's death nine years later

5:20 pm on 24 October 2018

An anonymous letter questioning an investigation into the death of an Auckland medical student has forced an inquest to reopen nine years after the man died.

Zachary Gravatt

Zachary Gravatt Photo: Supplied

Zachary Gravatt, 22, died from meningococcal disease after it went undiagnosed for four hours at Auckland Hospital in 2009.

Mr Gravatt was a healthy, active student up until he died - just 15 hours after waking up with a fever and pain.

After an inquest in 2011, the Auckland District Health Board paid the family compensation, when the coroner found shortcomings in the treatment Mr Gravatt received.

Today, the inquest has been re-opened after the family received an anonymous letter that called into question elements of the the DHBs original investigation.

Coroner Morag McDowell has decided to maintain suppression orders covering the contents of the letter, as well as witness evidence, until later in the inquest.

But Zachary's parents have recounted the harrowing last moments of their sons life and what it meant to get the anonymous letter.

Jennifer Gravatt recalled that she had never seen her son so unwell, and yet in her view, he was getting little medical attention.

"I had a very strong desire to hit the red emergency button, to get some urgent action to help Zachary," she said.

"It was only my sense of not wanting to make a fuss, in what was then, at that time, Zachary's place of employment."

After some time medical staff stepped up activity and rushed Mr Gravatt to the Department of Critical Care Medicine (DCCM).

"I saw Zachary's bed go by with people all around it.

"I was not given the nod to accompany him, and sadly I did not."

The family waited downstairs in the whānau room, where they were told Mr Gravatt's condition wasn't looking good.

Just as they were processing that news, a nurse came rushing towards them.

"[She] said run with me now so you can see Zach before he dies.

"We all ran along the corridor, I looked into an internal window on Zachary, who had, at that point, died."

The nurse offered to help the family take a print of Mr Gravatt's hand, which is when Ms Gravatt was struck by something she considered odd.

"I was shocked to see that the rigor mortis was already set in and it was hard to move his fingers to get a print," Ms Gravatt said.

"I remember thinking, Zachary must have died some time ago for this to be the case."

Mr Gravatt's father, Lance Gravatt described going back to the hospital the following morning to thank the doctors and understand what happened in the Department of Critical Care Medicine (DCCM).

"While they were still waiting on the blood results to confirm what infection it was, their suspicion was that Zachary had died of Meningococcal," he said.

"And really, that had dawned on them only as Zach had been admitted up to DCCM in a terrible state."

On 2 September 2016, the family were sent a letter with the words 'private and confidential' printed on the envelope.

In a written statement, Lance Gravatt described the allegations in that letter as having a "devastating effect" on him and his family.

"Over the last seven years, we have been doing the best we can to come to terms with the circumstances surrounding Zachary's death," he said.

"However, receiving the letter has plunged us back to the very start. We now have no idea what happened to Zachary that night.

"The possibility that he may have suffered terribly for well over and hour, knowing he was going to die, and without his family by his side, breaks me. The letter has reopened all of our old wounds."

The family says they trusted the DHB and its investigation but Lance Gravatt said that now may be marred by lies, deceit and unprofessionalism.

The inquest is set down for five days.