A Victorian teenager who was on her way to becoming a professional cricket player had her dreams crushed when a routine surgery went horribly wrong.
Britney Thomas, from the state’s Gippsland region, was just 17 when a botched surgery on her fractured thumb resulted in her finger being amputated and replaced with her big toe.
The teen’s story was aired last night as part of a Four Corners investigation into Australia’s concerning standard of health care, particularly in regional areas.
Britney injured her thumb while playing cricket in Hong Kong, and a trip to the doctor when she returned home revealed she had suffered a nasty fracture.
She was sent to Latrobe Regional Hospital to undergo an operation to fix the fracture by a local orthopaedic surgeon.
Before the operation a tourniquet was applied to restrict the blood flow during the surgery, and the aspiring cricket star was told it would be taken off once the operation was over.
After the surgery Britney’s thumb was set in plaster and she was sent home, but just five days later she knew something was seriously wrong.
Britney told Four Corners it was “the worst pain I think I have ever been through”.
She went back to her local GP to get the cast removed in order to see what was causing the pain.
When staff removed the plaster the source of Britney’s agony became clear — the tourniquet applied before the surgery had never been taken off.
“They pulled the plaster off and it was very dark and looked dead,” Britney’s mum, Leanne Keating, said.
“The skin was all yucky. I was mortified, it was horrible.”
The teen’s thumb had been restricted of blood for so long it could not be saved.
“They took me into the emergency and they were like ‘You’re probably going to lose your thumb’,” Britney said.
“I was in so much disbelief and I was like ‘What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my cricket?’”
The blunder meant most of her thumb had to be amputated and what was left had to be stitched to her groin for six weeks to get the nerves and arteries working again.
Before that doctors had used leeches to try and get the blood flow going again, but this didn’t work.
After that, Britney’s big toe was removed and stitched onto her hand to make a new thumb and a replacement toe was created using her hip bone.
Maurice Blackburn lawyer Tom Ballantyne said the error that led to Britney’s thumb being amputated was “unacceptable”.
“If you leave (a tourniquet) on and continue to restrict the blood flow to the thumb it will die and that’s exactly what happened here,” he said.
“It is medicine 101, it’s unacceptable and really hard to understand how that happened.”
The surgery left Britney unable to bend her thumb, making holding a cricket bat properly incredibly difficult.
“People ask me ‘Why does your thumb look so weird’ and I say because it’s not my thumb it’s my toe,” she said.
“I went from being able to do everything and now I can’t do anything.”
The teenager so much school during her recovery that she eventually dropped out.
CEO at Latrobe Regional Hospital, Peter Craighead, ordered an investigation following the incident.
“I felt sick in the stomach,” Mr Craighead said.
“We thought we had robust procedures and policies in place to ensure we had a very safe environment.”
He said it was “human error” that led to Britney’s thumb being amputated.
A staff member had written down that the tourniquet had been taken off even though it hadn’t.
“The best thing we could do is make sure that what happened to Britney didn’t happen again,” he said.
“It’s been gut wrenching for a lot of our staff.”
The latest research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that the rate of potentially avoidable deaths increases the further you live from a major city.
“Frankly it is unacceptable that your postcode can determine the quality of healthcare you receive,” Mr Ballantyne said.
“When you look at the catastrophic failures in our health systems, the high profile ones, these all happened in regional areas and I don’t think it is a coincidence.”