It was a morbid and disrespectful sight that left a grieving Maitland family devastated.
Two undertakers and a handful of rubberneckers look on as a doctor listens for a heartbeat from Elizabeth O’Kane, whose corpse lay in a body bag in the back of a panel van, parked in a public street outside Rutherford Shopping Centre during the lunch time rush.
When Mrs O’Kane’s family contacted her GP to certify her death, they were told her doctor was not working at Marketplace Medical Centre Rutherford and they would have to arrange to bring her body to the surgery for another doctor to examine.
Fairfax Media was unable to obtain a response from the medical centre on Thursday.
The family was mortified by the medical centre’s response and perceived “lack of compassion” for family at their most vulnerable.
Mrs O’Kane, 71, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in April. Her wish was to die at her daughter’s Rutherford home with her daughter, Anna Krausert, an aged care worker, looking after her. She passed away shortly after 11pm Tuesday.
“Mum contacted the doctors’ surgery and asked if nan’s GP could come and verify her death but was told the GP overseeing nan's case was not due back at the practice until Friday, that no other GPs facilitated house calls and there was nothing else they could do,” said Mrs O’Kane’s grandson Josef Krausert-O’Connor. “Mum asked if another doctor could come in his place and was told that we would have to arrange for nan’s body to be taken to the surgery for verification by another GP,” Josef said.
Confused, the family turned to a funeral home to help. “They transported nan to the doctors’ surgery. My husband Daniel and I followed. A doctor came out to certify nan’s death in the car park across the road from Rutherford Shopping Centre - next to the skate park.”
The situation was made more traumatic when a second doctor was called. “The first doctor thought he heard a heartbeat and could not certify nan’s death. A second doctor carried out the verification procedure,” Josef said. AMA (NSW) President, Dr Kean-Seng Lim said a doctor has to be sure a person has no signs of life to certify death. “If a doctor is uncertain a person is deceased, a second opinion is definitely justified and necessary,” Dr Lim said.
Josef said family members were present at the car park because they were concerned with what was happening. “The whole ordeal, watching this, knowing nan was in the back of that panel van was traumatic – absolutely horrifying. People were people rubbernecking – they could see this unfolding. Is there any dignity after death?”
Josef understands his grandmother’s doctor had not informed other practice members of the circumstances. He now understands other steps could have been taken for death certification but the family was not made aware of this.
“While mum has worked as an assistant in nursing and cared for other family members and aged care residents when they pass, the verification process has left agents in the health sector confused and uncertain if they have the capacity to verify a death. We have now learned that registered nurses, paramedics and police can verify a death if a doctor is unavailable. But it ultimately it has to be verified by a medical practitioner. It’s confusing and seemingly dealt with on a case-by-case basis. If this is standard practice something has to change,” Josef said.
Fairfax Media called authorities including the Royal Australian College of GPs and the Australian Medical Association but could not get a definitive answer on death verification protocol. The family is lodging a complaint with the Health Care Complaints Commission.