Parents heartbreak as 6-year-old boy suffers heart attack and dies at Broken Hill school

Kindergartener Austin Facer’s mother remembers him as “a happy little boy who loved life.”

On the morning of October 21, 2019, Austin’s mother Caroline drove him as usual to his school in Broken Hill in far western NSW.

“He was energetic and appeared perfectly healthy,” NSW Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Ryan said on Thursday.

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At 11:40 a.m., Austin’s teacher saw him sitting on the playground, clutching his chest, crying and screaming, “My chest hurts.”

His teacher supported him on the way to the school office and sat with him.

Austin began to lose all color from his face, went limp and passed out.

“He was placed on the floor in the recovery position and an ambulance was called,” Ryan said in their findings.

“Austin was described as making gasping noises.”

In the seven minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, school staff performed CPR and used a defibrillator to revive Austin.

When paramedics arrived he was unresponsive but breathing and was taken to Broken Hill Base Hospital where it was agreed his condition was serious enough to require a medical transfer to a city facility.

Austin was an energetic little boy who loved to play soccer.

At 2:30 p.m. Austin’s vital signs were “normal” and at 5:00 p.m. he was talking and laughing with his father by his side.

A transfer team did not arrive until just before midnight, and Austin collapsed as he was being prepared for the flight, an inquest into his death was heard.

After all resuscitation stopped just after 2 a.m., he was pronounced dead.

“Austin was an energetic little boy who loved to play soccer, ride his bike and play games with his little brother, Rome,” Ryan said.

“Even though Rome was only three years old when Austin died, Caroline told the court that he still keeps asking her where his brother is.”

Ryan said Austin’s family may be wondering for years now if his life could have been saved.

“The evidence found revealed significant flaws in the planning of the transfer, resulting in unacceptable and avoidable delays,” Ryan said in her findings at the Lidcombe Coroner’s Court.

“Although everyone involved in Austin’s recovery had their best interests at heart, his transfer was fraught with systemic flaws and flawed decision-making.

“For many hours, there just wasn’t a solid plan to move Austin anywhere.”

“Horrifying” wait

Ryan said she couldn’t determine if moving her to a city hospital more quickly would have prevented Austin’s death.

“But there is no doubt that a timely transfer would have the potential to improve his chances of survival,” she said.

“For (his parents) this conclusion can be of little consolation. You will always wonder if your little boy might have survived if his transfer had not taken so long.

“The long wait that afternoon and evening must have been heartbreaking.”

Ryan said the research is important to other people living in rural and remote parts of the state “who deserve to have the earliest possible access to full hospital services, as do patients elsewhere in NSW”.

“Investigations are an opportunity to see if they are getting the health services they need and deserve,” she said.

“The evidence in this investigation revealed that there was ambiguity as to which service owned Austin’s transfer, which combined with suboptimal decision-making led to communication and planning errors.”

Ryan said while there were unacceptable delays, Austin received appropriate care at his school and by hospital staff.

She made three recommendations, including the need for mutually agreed guidelines for transfers, covering operational and clinical processes, to be settled as soon as possible.

Six months ago, Ryan found “serious and unacceptable” deficiencies in the treatment of teenager Alex Braes at Broken Hill hospital.

Braes died of sepsis in 2017 after being denied admission to a South Australian tertiary facility under a policy preventing interstate transfers.

A NSW Health budget hearing in September was told that Braes’ death had led to an agreement with SA Health and that there were now 300 emergency transfers from Broken Hill to Adelaide each year.

Ryan acknowledged that the investigation into Austin’s death was deeply painful for his family.

“I know they will always grieve for Austin and I hope that with time that grief will lessen and they will find some peace.”

– additional reporting Stephanie Gardiner, AAP

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