X-ray reveals hospital’s shocking error
When Katrina Vella walked into a Queensland hospital with a broken wrist she had no idea that one seemingly small mistake by staff would still impact her life years later.
Ms Vella, now 46, was dancing at a bar in June 2015 when she fell and hurt her left wrist.
She attended the emergency department at Townsville Hospital where an X-ray confirmed she had suffered a wrist fracture.
As was to be expected, Ms Vella was told she would have to be put in a cast and a staff member got to work putting the plaster on and setting her wrist in place.
But instead of setting her wrist in the correct position, the plaster was set so her wrist was placed at a 45-degree angle to her arm, according to a statement of claim put forward by Shine Lawyers.
Ms Vella is now taking legal action against Townsville Hospital, claiming the mistake left her with permanent damage.
Before leaving the hospital, Ms Vella said her pain level was "10 out of 10" and that her fingers on her left hand felt numb. Despite her complaints, she was sent home later that day.
"I was in excruciating pain. My fingers were swollen, my whole hand was hot and burning but I thought it was all a normal part of having a broken wrist," Ms Vella told news.com.au.
When she returned for her follow-up appointment 10 days later, one of the doctors commented on the way her hand was set.
He even asked if he could take a photo as he claimed had "never seen anything like that before", according to Ms Vella.
She had another X-ray and was told her wrist was not healing and she would need to come back in three weeks for a check-up.
She had a feeling something was wrong but she trusted staff to do the right thing.
"I thought they wouldn't send me away unless they thought it was in the position it was meant to be left in," Ms Vella said.
"That position, if you can imagine, is like having your thumb bent under your hand and then also bent over facing towards you kind of like in a sock puppet position."
It was about seven weeks since the break when the cast was finally removed and the extent of the damage became clear.
"Before my cast was taken off it was swelling and had gotten to the point where I told them many times I was still in pain," she said.
"I was ignored and nothing was followed up."
After the cast was fully taken off Ms Vella found she had very little use of her hand and despite going through months of physiotherapy she wasn't showing any signs of improvement.
"It was so stiff, thin and had no muscle. My fingers didn't bend at all and it stopped me from doing a lot of things," Ms Vella said.
"I was still in excruciating pain and was on medication that affected my driving, speech and sleep, to the point where I developed sleep apnoea. When I was having a conversation I struggled to think of the words I needed."
In February 2016, she had an MRI scan and was told what started out as a broken wrist that should have healed in a few weeks would now need surgery to be fixed.
"Six days short of a year I went into surgery. I woke up from the operation screaming in pain," Ms Vella said.
"I was begging a room full of strangers to let me die, that's how bad it was."
Along with the excruciating pain, she had also lost function in her fingers and was unable to straighten them.
Ms Vella said she felt she was being treated like the pain was all in her head.
"When I was discharged I told staff I had a pain score of 10 out of 10 and they told me that was impossible," she said.
About 10 weeks after her surgery Ms Vella finally found out why she had woken up screaming in pain.
"The doctor sat me down and told me 'either we severed four of your tendons during surgery or you have done something'," she said.
"I was angry at that point because I had been doing everything I was told. I told him, 'You know full well when they severed and who severed them.'"
Ms Vella underwent surgery in Brisbane to repair the severed tendons in August 2016 after being referred to a private doctor.
Once again she was placed in a cast, this time down to her fingertips, but in April 2017 she was forced to go under the knife again.
The plate that had been inserted in Townsville Hospital when she had first had surgery was now at risk of causing further damage to her hand.
"Normally a plate never has to be removed. So now I have no plate and awful scars all over my hand," Ms Vella said.
Almost every part of her life has been impacted by these events.
"Something that should have been resolved in a few weeks resulted in life-long damage," she said.
"I was a very independent woman before this. I was paying off my home, I had two kids in private schools, I was a residential youth worker and loved what I did. I didn't have to rely on anyone."
Ms Vella still had very little use of her hand, is still on a lot of medication and suffers from chronic pain and complex nerve damage.
She hasn't been able to return to work and can't even perform simple daily tasks without extreme difficulty.
"The doctors who did this to me carry on with their lives while I am still suffering," she said.
Townsville Hospital and Health Service chief executive Kieran Keys told news.com.au the hospital did not comment on matters before the courts.
"Any claim needs to be tested by the courts based on evidence from both parties," he said.
Shine Lawyers medical law expert Clare Eves said with the correct medical care Ms Vella's fractured wrist should have healed without any complications.
"The fact is our client now can't perform simple daily tasks, like doing up buttons, as a direct result of Townsville Hospital failing in its duty of care and setting her wrist in an overly flexed position," Ms Eves said.
"Despite Katrina complaining of pain and numbness in her fingers during weekly visits to the Townsville Hospital Outpatients Orthopaedic Fracture Clinic and also having regular X-rays, which misreported her fracture as healing, her wrist was allowed to stay in this hyper-flexed position for seven weeks, which is inexcusable.
"We now know that Townsville Hospital Outpatients Fracture Clinic is not run by orthopaedic specialists, but by house doctors who do not specialise in broken bones.
"The doctors at the clinic should have escalated Katrina's case to an orthopaedic specialist in the early stages of recovery when she was not healing correctly. If this was done our client would not be suffering like she is today."