A grieving family is calling for urgent changes to be made to a Riverina hospital after the death of a woman who was allegedly turned away from its emergency department.
Lorena Quinlivan has given a distressing account of her mother's experience at Leeton Hospital the day before a "frightened" Millie Salter died alone at home on June 4, 2020.
She has decided to share her story amid mounting pressure on the Murrumbidgee Local Health District from Leeton residents wanting improvements made to their town's medical services.
Ms Quinlivan, a lawyer living in Canberra, has alleged her 84-year-old mother was "dismissed" by a doctor, without any tests to monitor her heartbeat, even though she had a known history of heart issues and was experiencing chest pain.
"They made her feel like she shouldn't have been there, she had no right to be there. No one should feel like that when they go to a hospital," Ms Quinlivan said.
The family is well-known in the town as the Hodge Family Singers, a beloved country music group originally from Leeton, where the popular Mrs Salter lived for most of her life.
MLHD chief executive Jill Ludford said no patients were turned away from hospital emergency departments, but invited people to contact the organisation to confidentially discuss any concerns, or to contact the Health Care Complaints Commission.
Leeton Shire is home to more than 11,000 people.
The NSW government has promised a $2.5 million renovation of its hospital, but it has no obstetrics, no surgery and no permanent doctor, and residents say it does not have reliable access to a doctor overnight or in emergencies.
A former staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fears of professional repercussions, described a "miserable" culture at a hospital plagued by governance issues, where complaints to senior managers "go nowhere".
"There's a high turnover of staff ... No resources. Just mainly getting staff is like pulling a screw from a concrete slab," they said.
"The hospital has got a bad name for the working culture. When you report that there are issues with staff that bully and harass each other, nothing much is done."
The former staff member described the state of the hospital as "beyond comprehension", saying there could be up to 60 emergency presentations on a busy day with no doctors present.
Local general practitioners staff the hospital as visiting medical officers, but the former staff member claims some nurses were "scared" of calling them to come in.
Another Leeton resident said she took her husband to the hospital in September because he had cellulitis in his leg and "urgently" needed antibiotics.
The resident, who asked not to be named because she said she feared a backlash from the tight-knit town, claims the emergency department nurse "literally refused to call the doctor".
"Another time my son was vomiting blood. We drove him to Narrandera and the doctor there said he was shocked. Leeton wouldn't do anything," she said.
"It was an absolute nightmare. They were legitimate emergencies. We're talking real life emergencies."
Letters seen by Australian Community Mediareveal that NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard was aware two years ago of claims of deteriorating community confidence in the MLHD's management of Leeton Hospital.
In 2019, Mr Hazzard ordered an investigation which cleared the MLHD of the allegations made against it, including a claim of "maladministration".
Member for Murray Helen Dalton is not convinced by this outcome, saying she has been contacted by "disgusted" residents voicing their concerns about a "hospital in crisis".
"The investigators didn't even come to Leeton. You can't trust the NSW health department to do an inquiry [of itself]," she said.
"The staff are doing an incredible job under high pressure. There's a culture of bullying. A culture of not being able to speak out about some of the things that need to be changed."
Australian Community Media sent specific questions to Mr Hazzard's office, but the minister did not respond to them.
Ms Ludford said the MLHD was aware of claims of bullying at Leeton Hospital and that "any allegations are taken very seriously and investigated fully, and support provided to affected staff".
Leeton Shire Council has made a submission to the NSW parliamentary rural health inquiry, which paints a dire picture of "serious inequity in the health planning system", and says the community and council "have lost confidence in what we are told by MLHD management".
Poor staff morale, a "revolving door" of hospital managers and the erosion of medical services accelerated by stifling bureaucracy are among the concerns raised.
Leeton Hospital's operating theatre will not reopen because its recovery room is "apparently 11 centimetres too small" despite recent renovations, the report says.
Leeton mayor Paul Maytom is critical of local health services, which he says lack transparency and are not meeting realistic community expectations.
Cr Maytom met with MLHD staff earlier this week and is calling on the health district to work with the council on a formal plan for Leeton Hospital.
"The community are finding it very hard to accept that when there are incidents there are no VMOs available at the hospital," he said.
"I'm sick of the masquerading. I'm sick of the big dollar numbers that go out there and say, 'look at what we're doing' ... The system is wrong."
He spoke as a close friend of the family at Mrs Salter's funeral, which was live-streamed and has been viewed on Facebook more than 5000 times.
"There should be follow-up. Those things should be investigated. In this case, it's quite traumatic for that family. Those types of questions should be answered, there's no doubt about that," he said.
Ms Quinlivan and her sisters will soon return to Leeton to visit Mrs Salter's grave on their first Mother's Day without her.
Ms Ludford said the MLHD had been trying to recruit a permanent doctor and nurse practitioners for the Leeton Hospital emergency department since 2019.
"MLHD is now developing different options to attract medical officers for emergency departments, whilst supporting the local doctors to admit patients for local care," she said.
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