26 Oct 2018

Anonymous letter alleges doctor delayed treatment of critical patient

5:10 am on 26 October 2018

Allegations that an on call doctor wanted to finish his dessert before going to hospital to treat a critically ill young man have surfaced from the anonymous letter that reopened an inquest.

Zachary Gravatt

Zachary Gravatt Photo: Supplied

Medical student Zachary Gravatt, who was 22, had been healthy and active before he died at Auckland Hospital in 2009 from meningococcal disease.

In 2011, a coroner found Mr Gravatt was not treated in a timely fashion and the District Health Board paid the family compensation.

The inquest was re-opened after the family received an anonymous letter that questioned aspects of the DHB's investigation.

Coroner Morag McDowell has suppressed identities in the hearing.

Aspects of the letter's claims include an on-call doctor not responding to the initial call about Mr Gravatt's deteriorating health and he apparently laughed at a staff member who suggested the student had meningococcal disease.

The allegations also say the doctor refused to go to the hospital because he had been out dining in Ponsonby and wanted to finish eating his dessert.

When he did turn up with another doctor, it's claimed they were joking and demanding to know what all the fuss was about.

The claims were completely rejected by the on-call doctor, another doctor who was on-site and also another staff member who have all now given evidence.

The on-call doctor said he first diagnosed suspected meningococcal disease after a phone call from the on-site doctor, which ended around 6.15pm.

"I told [the on-site doctor] that I thought the diagnosis of swine flu was very unlikely and that in my opinion, the likely diagnosis was... meningococcal disease," he said.

"I said to the doctor that Mr Gravatt should be admitted acutely to the Department of Critical Care Medicine, and that in the meantime I would return to the hospital immediately."

The inquest heard there was uncertainty about when the doctor on call arrived at the Department of Critical Care.

But it's generally accepted that the doctor got there about 7pm.

However, a staff member told the inquest she was the one who raised meningococcal disease with the doctor in a phone call while he was on the way to hospital.

"He asked me if I was sure," she said.

"I [then] described the particular rash that he had."

She said the doctor asked her whether she was sure.

The staff member then raised her concerns with a colleague that the doctor had lied in the first coroner's inquest, which the doctor rejected.

The doctor also said the reason for taking more than half an hour to drive to the hospital from Ponsonby was heavy traffic.

Simon Mount, a lawyer assisting the coroner, said the normal driving time for the 2.8km distance was around 10 to 12 minutes.

He said the traffic would have been extraordinary for it have taken more than half an hour.

The doctor said he didn't think getting to the hospital five or ten minutes earlier would have changed the outcome.

The staff member told the hearing Mr Gravatt's condition deteriorated very quickly.

"When a patient comes up talking and then deteriorates so quickly that they die within 30 minutes or so, it affects the whole unit," she said.

"A sudden death is unusual and being so young, I think it's just a little bit harder."

She said sudden death was unusual, especially with someone so young and it could affect the whole unit. The staff member started crying while talking about how a new staff member had been assigned to Mr Gravatt.

She said they shouldn't have had to deal with such a traumatic event.

The anonymous letter

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

In a statement, Mr Gravatt's father 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 an 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 said they trusted the DHB and its investigation but that now may be marred by lies, deceit and unprofessionalism.

The inquest will resume on Monday.

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