Bega man told to walk home from hospital at 2am after arriving with chest pains

South East Regional Hospital
South East Regional Hospital. Photo: SNSWLHD

Much has been said and written about the South East Regional Hospital in 2017 – most of it negative.

And as someone that purports to tell the stories of South East NSW, I haven’t always been sure of how to respond to the growing community concerns around services.

Politics, self-interest, and my own shortcomings have at times muddied the waters for me, and been a handbrake on About Regional coverage. And I didn’t want to add to the avalanche of “hospital bashing” stories.

Paul’s story has changed that, it’s a no bullshit experience that goes to the heart of what a hospital is supposed to provide – care and compassion.

Paul is not his real name. In telling his story Paul doesn’t want to embarrass friends and clients that work at the new facility and has asked to remain anonymous. But he does want change and does want better for the community he has made his home.

Step 1 for Paul. Photo: Ian Campbell
Step 1 for Paul. Photo: Ian Campbell

Paul is a long time Bega Valley resident, “It’ll be 20 years in February,” he says.

A Victorian by birth, Paul says he followed his dad to Merimbula for a holiday and stayed.

He’s in a longterm relationship, in his fifties and runs his own business.

In early September on a Sunday evening, Paul and his partner called an ambulance to their Bega home.

Paul was having chest pains, “I’d had a few incidents that day, but after dinner, it got worse and worse,” he says.

Sitting in his kitchen with spag bol bubbling in the background, Paul recounts the experience telling me he couldn’t breathe and that the pain got “pretty bad”.

Step 2. Photo: Ian Campbell
Step 2. Photo: Ian Campbell

“They kept me in hospital for five hours, did blood tests and told me that I didn’t have a heart attack, [they told me] we think you’ve got angina,” Paul says.

The clock had moved around to 1:30 am by this stage and with a diagnosis in hand, Paul was advised to see his  GP during the week.

“They [then] gave me a blanket and said I’d have to walk home,” Paul explains.

Step 3, "If they are going to make people walk home, they should have a footpath all the way." Photo: Ian Campbell
Step 3, “If they are going to make people walk home, they should have a footpath all the way.” Photo: Ian Campbell

Paul arrived at the hospital with his partner five hours earlier via ambulance, they had no car, no way of getting home.

“We have lots of friends, but it was two o’clock in the morning, we didn’t want to impose on people,” he says.

“They [hospital satff] didn’t give me any other option but to walk home.”

No bed was offered, no ride home, just a blanket to guard against the early spring chill.

“I did say – I can’t walk home with angina,” Paul says.

None the less Paul and his partner were tossed out to walk the four and bit kilometres home to the Bega CBD.

“It was a bit scary because I got the pain back when we got down to Glebe Lagoon,” he says.

Paul laughs when he says,”If they are going to make people walk home than they should make sure there’s a footpath all the way.”

Step 4 - chest pains at Glebe Lagoon. Photo: Ian Campbell.
Step 4 – chest pains at Glebe Lagoon. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Thankfully Paul made it home and was able to see his doctor on the Wednesday.

“It was a chest infection, it’s all good now and I don’t have angina,” he says.

Before publishing Paul’s story I sought comment from the Southern NSW Local Health District.

This is a mistake I thought, people don’t get kicked out of hospital with a blanket at 2am and told to walk home after presenting with chest pains.

In seeking a response I had hoped the Health Service would say, “We are sorry this happened, it won’t happen again.”

After all, around the time of Paul’s experience, the Southern Health CEO and Board Chair were sacked by NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard,

The recommendations of the Health Minister’s review had started to be implemented.

A new manager at South East Regional Hospital (SERH) had started work.

The Health Minister and the Shadow Health Minister had both visited SERH since Paul walked home that night.

Things have changed is what the community is told. No, they haven’t is the impression I am left with.

Step 5. Photo: Ian Campbell
Step 5. Photo: Ian Campbell

My request for comment about Paul’s experience was referred to the NSW Health Transport Travel Support Group.

“We are able to perform transport during operational hours if we have capacity but being 2 am, there would have been no capacity,” they said.

“The problem is not that the hospital doesn’t provide transport, but rather that there is only one taxi in Bega and they won’t provide service after hours.

“In cases of hardship we would pay for transport home if there was any available,” the Travel Support Group says.

In my mind, the response fails to understand or address the care that was missing from Paul’s experience that night and undermines assurances that the management and operations at South East Regional Hospital have improved.

Step 6 - almost home. Photo: Ian Campbell
Step 6 – almost home. Photo: Ian Campbell

Where is the care and compassion we assume will be a part of a visit to any hospital?

How is it that people who were drawn to a caring profession are able to give a sick man a blanket for the walk home but not a bed for the night or a ride home?

Where is the understanding of the regional setting in which this facility operates?

Am I right in thinking the NSW Health Service just dumped on the Bega taxi service?

The Health Minister’s review of hospital operations pointed to the need for a cultural change within SERH – on this count the reform so far has failed.

The new Cheif Executive of Southern NSW Local Health District started work this week. Andrew Newton comes from a nursing background and on ABC radio this week spoke of his understanding and appreciation of small hospitals.

He spoke clearly, compassionately, and with knowledge, and recognised the need to retain and attract good staff. The community is hopefully his words translate into better health experiences.

Paul has made an official complaint about his piss-poor treatment, he is yet to receive a response or assurances it won’t happen to someone else.

In the meantime he hangs on to the blanket staff gave him on that cold, fearful night as proof of his hard to believe experience.


Earlier coverage from About Regional on this issue:

“Community rallies to fix hospital heartbreak.”

“Review of South East Regional Hospital on track.”


Review of South East Regional Hospital on track for end of April deadline

A vote to extend the contract of Dr Phoon
A vote to extend the contract of Dr Phoon at the March 9 community rally in Bega

Four weeks ago the South East community erupted, concerned at what it had been hearing out of the new South East Regional Hospital in Bega.

Around 500 people gathered in the town’s civic centre, with interest from as far away as Moruya, Cooma and Mallacoota – highlighting the truly regional role of this $190 million health facility.

Speakers pointed to increasing waiting lists, a turnover of senior staff, doctors pay being cut, the increasing use of fly-in fly-out locums, admin staff in tears about their workload, good staff fleeing, stretched nursing care, and billions of dollars in Federal Government money stripped away.

The sacking of orthopeadic surgeon Dr Chris Phoon was described as ‘a flint to a tinderbox’ by his colleague Dr Matthew Nott, which galvanised the community rally of March 9 around the need for a full review of the health service.

Eight days later the NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard obliged, announcing a far-reaching review into the operation and management of the 12 month old hospital.

Under the agreed Terms of Reference, the reviewers will:
  • Analyse and assess  the  role  of  the  hospital and local health district management in establishing processes and procedures for transitioning to the new hospital
  • Identify any deficiencies in the management of the hospital
  • Assess  existing  mechanisms  for  clinician  and  staff  engagement and communication and their potential impact on culture, morale and staff turnover
  • Assess systems and the capacity to detect, respond and manage emerging critical issues.
South East Regional Hospital
South East Regional Hospital

Those charged with doing the review are Associate Professor Michael Reid, an experienced health administrator and former Director General of NSW Health and Queensland Health, supported by Dr Adrian Norwitzke, a neurosurgeon with broad experience across both clinical and business practice.

That work is happening right now and About Regional understands that the Southern NSW Local Health District Board has been interviewed in the last week along with respected local doctors.

The Member for Bega, Andrew Constance says the review is on track to be completed by the end of April and will be delivered to the Secretary of NSW Health for the Minister to review.

Responding to questions from the About Regional community, Mr Constance said he thought it was important that the heat and debate around the issue had settled down while the review team goes about its work.

“I am desperate to see a new era of collaboration in this brand new hospital,” Mr Constance said.

“The key point that I would make is – everyone hold fire, because ultimately there will be a report back to the community on the best way forward.”

Mr Constance was at the old Bega Hospital site on McKee Drive on Friday (April 7) announcing the Government’s intention to turn the prime location into a state-of-the-art TAFE campus.

In doing so he acknowledged the challenges the local health service was always going to face in adjusting to new work practices at the Tathra Road site.

“I always said it was going to be rocky and we are going to have to work hard to get through this transition period,” Mr Constance said.

“New bricks and mortar doesn’t necessarily mean that the morale within the staffing structure is what it should be.”

Mr Constance says he is looking for change and a better government structure to oversee the hospital on the back of the review.

“I’ve noticed over the last week or so that there is a sense that change is afoot, and there will be,” Mr Constance says.

Better engagement with medical staff, improved staff health and happiness, and less reliance on locums are key areas to address for the local member.

“But importantly, I get some really good feedback about the health experiences within the facility, we’ve got professional men and women delivering a great service at the facility and long may that continue,” he said.

When asked specifically about the future of Dr Chris Phoon and any contractual discussions underway, Mr Constance wouldn’t be drawn, but pointed to discussions the surgeon had had with himself and the Health Minister.

Mr Constance said it’s a discussion that should happen ‘off line’.

Click play to hear more from Andrew Constance…


More will be known in a few weeks, and we wait to see how the review and its recommendations will be presented to the public.

“The Health Minister was right to appoint these two experts (Reid and Norwitzke), it gives the community confidence that we’ve got the best people with the best expertise to be able to get through this challenge,” Mr Constance said.