When Imogen Petrak, 35, was rushed to a Gold Coast hospital emergency department at 35.5 weeks pregnant, she was vomiting, had headaches, and the onset of infection — she never made it out.
Less than a day later — and just hours after delivering her daughter Eleanor via emergency caesarean section — the young mother died of bacterial meningitis and mastoiditis because of what her widower John Petrak has alleged in a civil suit were failures at the Gold Coast University Hospital.
Mr Petrak filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court seeking $2.1 million in damages from the Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service over allegations it breached its duty of care
The lawsuit alleged the hospital failed to consider the “appropriateness” or “necessity” of performing the lumbar puncture in circumstances where two biological samples had already been taken and Ms Petrak had symptoms of pressure building in her skull.
It was alleged the hospital neglected to act with due care and skill or appropriately treat and manage her condition and the failures “caused and/or materially contributed” to her death.
“But for the failures, the deceased would have, on the balance of probabilities, survived with no or no significant neurological complications,” the document alleged.
Lumbar procedure ‘not necessary’, lawyers say
In a statement to the ABC, Mr Petrak’s legal counsel, Shine Lawyers, claimed the hospital “cost the mother-of-two her life” in July 2017 by doing a lumbar procedure “that was not necessary in the circumstances to make a clinical diagnosis”.
“Imogen would still be here today if a lumbar puncture was not performed when it was,” medical law expert Clare Eves said.
“Expert evidence shows that Imogen’s clinical signs and investigations were sufficient to diagnose her with mastoiditis and meningitis, meaning the treatment she was receiving was correct and she would have had a 90 per cent chance of survival.
“Instead, a lumbar puncture was performed when Imogen was critically ill and it should not have been. [She] suffered a brain herniation as a result of the lumbar puncture, which caused her death.”
Ms Eves said Mr Petrak said he held no ill-will towards the hospital but hoped the death of his wife — who he described as “the most gentle and caring person he has ever met” — would be used to improve clinical training and procedures.
Their daughter Eleanor, who was born the same day her mother died, occasionally calls other women “my mummy” and hugs them.
Ms Eves said the family’s other child JB, knows his mum fell ill and continues to ask “when she will be getting better and coming back from heaven”.
“John says both Eleanor and her big brother, JB, are doing very well which gives him the strength to continue moving forward,” Ms Eves said.
John Petrak’s two children give him the strength to continue moving forward. (Supplied: Petrak family)
Mother declared brain dead
According to Supreme Court documents, Ms Petrak was first admitted to the hospital after midnight on July 12, 2017, with “flu-like symptoms” and a “fever”.
Hours later, she was complaining of a painful left ear, which a medical officer said was likely viral inflammation.
She was later released home, only to arrive back at the emergency department late that afternoon with symptoms including vomiting.
By about 7:40pm, her temperature had risen to 40.4 degrees Celsius, and staff noted she was unwell, grunting, moaning, and unable to answer questions.
Her health continued to deteriorate over the following hours and her score on the Glasgow coma scale dropped to 7, which is categorised as a severe brain injury.
A decision was then made to put Ms Petrak on a ventilator and deliver her daughter Eleanor by an emergency caesarean section.
About three hours after the birth, Ms Petrak had a lumbar puncture to test her cerebrospinal fluid, the documents said.
Ms Petrak was declared brain dead later that morning at age 35.
Her death certificate listed the cause as bacterial meningitis and mastoiditis.
Placed faith in the experts
Ms Eves said Mr Petrak remembered the hospital asking him for permission to do the lumbar puncture — a conversation that “stabs at him to this day”.
“At the time they told him it was a necessary procedure and of course he placed his faith in the experts,” she said.
Mr Petrak is seeking approximately $2.1 million, including $1.597 million for future loss of domestic services.
Ms Eves said the couple had previously planned for Ms Petrak to home-school their children.
“Now that this can’t happen, John has had to employ a nanny,” she said.
“Compensation from this legal action will be used for the children’s care and education.”
The Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service is yet to file a defence.
A spokeswoman said they were unable to provide any comment until the completion of proceedings.