Inquest into Aoife Johnston’s death hears UHL ‘not safe’ for patients on night she died

Parents James and Carol Johnston with daughters Megan and Kate outside the courthouse in Kilmallock. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

A DOCTOR who treated 16-year-old Aoife Johnston prior to her death at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) wept in the witness box at the teenager’s inquest today (Tuesday), telling Limerick Coroner John McNamara that the emergency department at UHL was “not a safe environment” for patients.

Dr Leandri Card described how she was trying to manage 191 patients in the emergency department (ED) on her own, saying she and the ED nurses were “overwhelmed” on the night the Shannon schoolgirl presented at the hospital.

The South African native, who was working as a Senior House Officer (SHO) in UHL’s ED said “every inch of the floor space” was taken up by patients on trollies when Aoife presented on December 17, 2022.

“It was like a war zone. It was an impossible situation,” she said.

Dr Card told the inquest at Limerick Coroner’s Court in Kilmallock that due to overcrowding and pressure on staff, she and other doctors routinely prescribed medication for ED patients without first seeing or examining them.

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“It happens on every shift, on every day,” she said.

Dr Card agreed with Damien Tansey, senior counsel and solicitor representing the Johnston family, that this was “not best practice”.

She said it was the norm and the only way patients would get medication as quickly as possible, because doctors were too busy dealing with patients.

“It’s not a safe environment, you do what you have to do, it’s not best practice.”

When asked by Mr Tansey if this practice would give rise to “adverse outcomes” for patients, Dr Card replied: “Definitely”.

She said that despite prescribing antibiotics for her at 6.40am on December 18 to treat suspected meningitis, Aoife did not receive the medication for an hour and 15 minutes.

Dr Card said the medicine, which it was heard would have potentially saved her life, “wasn’t given as immediate as it should have”.

The witness said she did not have access to where medicines were kept. Prescribed drugs were normally administered by nurses, but Dr Card indicated she was not blaming anyone for the delay.

“It is common that it doesn’t happen as immediately as it should, as the nurses are overwhelmed.”

She agreed she was still “haunted and troubled” by Aoife’s death.

She said doctors routinely “don’t have enough time” to read patient medical charts before prescribing medicines to them, instead they have brief exchanges with nurses who advise them of the patient’s symptoms.

Dr Card also agreed she was “by herself” as the only SHO on the ED floor on the night Aoife was brought in by her parents and she was trying to “manage 191 patients”.

She said a severe weather episode had exacerbated overcrowding in the ED and that Category 2 patients, including Aoife, who are regarded to be seriously ill patients, were “deteriorating” due to lengthy waiting times to see a doctor.

The inquest heard that staff were not aware of any plans at UHL to implement measures to mitigate patient flow, despite the hospital having prior notice of the weather alert.

Dr Card said the recommended time for a Category 2 patient to see a doctor is between 10 and 15 minutes.

However, Aoife languished for 12 hours across two chairs before being seen by Dr Card. There were no trollies for her to rest on and her parents said she was in “agony” as they called for help, but they said “there was no help”.

Wiping away tears, Dr Card described the “intolerable” the situation in the Limerick ED.

Aoife’s family made a makeshift bed from two chairs so the teenager could lie down.

She said other Category 2 patients were waiting longer than Aoife – some were waiting an average of 19 hours to see a doctor, and Category 3 patients were waiting 39 hours.

Aoife Johnston presented at UHL at 5.40pm on December 17, 2022. The hospital’s protocols on sepsis, which require sepsis queried patents to be seen urgently were not followed.

She was not triaged until 7.15pm that night, and did not receive antibiotics until it was too late.

She died at UHL on December 19.

Dr Card said she examined Aoife at 6am on December 18, 12 hours after she had presented with a doctor’s referral letter querying sepsis.

She wept and took several deep inhales of breath to try to compose herself while giving evidence.

She agreed she had been severely emotionally impacted by Aoife’s death and that the teenager’s death had led to her quitting the HSE.

Dr Card said the ED and adjoining resuscitation room were “full up” of trolleys that were blocking doorways.

She agreed there was not enough staff and too many patents, which led to a perfect storm in the ED.

Dr Card said Aoife’s death was “instrumental” in her decision to quit the HSE to work in a private health clinic, saying she has not worked in an emergency department since.

Yesterday (Monday) former UHL clinical nurse manager Katherine Skelly said the ED was like a “war zone” and “in crisis” like she had never seen.

Ms Skelly, who was also deeply traumatised by Aoife’s death and retired from her post in the aftermath, said she had made several calls to more senior staff, including UHL ED consultant Dr Jim Gray, to come to assist her, but she said “he declined” and told her he had been in already and would be in again the following morning.

Dr Gray is expected to give evidence before the inquest on Thursday.

Aoife eventually underwent a CT scan on her brain after she became unresponsive and her brain had swelled. Doctors put her into an induced coma to ease the swelling but she did not survive.

The inquest continues this afternoon and is scheduled to run until Thursday.