“She looked like a scared mouse, her eyes were rolling in the back of her head, she looked terrified, absolutely terrified,” Sue Agnello says. She is describing the final moments of her mother-in-law’s life in a Melbourne hospital.
Carmela Agnello was 92 when she died in the Northern Hospital from COVID-19 and her final goodbyes with her family were done over Skype.
Carmela was one of the 211 cases of COVID-19 that have so far been linked to the controversial Epping Gardens Aged Care facility in Epping, Melbourne, where at least 20 residents have since passed away.
Sue’s husband Sam Agnello is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Epping Gardens and its owner, Heritage Care.
Over 60 families have joined the lawsuit which is being handled by Carbone lawyers, and partner Tony Carbone says the families involved want to make sure that what they have experienced doesn’t happen to anyone else.
The class action alleges that Epping gardens failed to protect the residents who contracted the virus and, among other issues, the home allowed a baby shower to take place in the home on 16 July and party on the 18th.
“A lot of the concerns weren’t only around what was happening with COVID. A lot of the concerns were about the poor treatment of their loved ones pre-COVID,” Carbone told Aged Care Insite.
“The reality is that the level of abuse in that place is just extraordinary. People dehydrated, not getting fed properly, not getting their medications. Just weren’t getting attended to. Sanitation was poor, a lack of care. The breach of the contract they signed when they entered the facility, which is that they’d be looked after, and we say they weren’t looked after.”
Carmela, a resident of Epping Gardens since July 2018, was transferred to the Northern Hospital on 25 July after she hit her head in a suspected fall.
Doctors were shocked at her condition and overall wellbeing upon arrival. “Did she have a fever at Epping Gardens?” they asked the family.
“We said, ‘We’ll ring and find out.’ She was fully dehydrated. She had fluid on the lungs, she had a cough and she needed oxygen and she had a UTI infection and her heart wasn’t working properly,” Sue says.
“We said, ‘Has all that happened from the fall?’ [The doctor] said, ‘No, this has got nothing to do with the fall. From the fall she looked like she’s okay. It’s how she’s presented, we’re extremely concerned.'”
Sue and her family then tried to contact Epping Gardens but could not get hold of anyone via phone or email.
The next time they heard from management was the day Carmela and family said their goodbyes. Epping Gardens called to say that Carmela had tested positive for COVID-19 from a test taken, unbeknownst to Agnello’s family, on Thursday the 23rd. Carmela passed away on 28 July.
Sue and her family are devastated about the treatment Carmela was given in Epping Gardens. The lack of communication and secrecy has left them with many unanswered questions.
“My question was, number one, did my mother-in-law have a fall or not?
“Number two, if she had a fall, what caused the fall? Because apparently they had no staff in there and apparently meds weren’t being given. My mother-in-law was fully dehydrated when she got to Northern. You don’t get fully dehydrated in a five-minute ambulance trip,” she said.
An ABC investigation of the failures at Epping Gardens found notes from executives at the home saying that staff levels, normally set at 110 people, were “serious” and “50 down” at the time of the outbreak.
Staff told not to get COVID tests
Carbone says that some Epping Gardens carers have contacted his firm and intend to speak out against the home. They have told him that staffing numbers were indeed low and often inexperienced staff were left alone to look after residents.
Carers also allege that they were told off by superiors for getting COVID-19 tests as they were already short staffed, leaving many carers scared of losing their jobs.
Questions have also been raised about the level of infection control at the home. Staff and residents were said to have been allowed to move freely around any areas of the home.
Carbone told Aged Care Insite that this was particularly negligent. At the time of the outbreak, Epping Gardens was leasing the bottom level of the facility to the Northern Hospital for respite, and staff allege that they were made to work across that section as well as upstairs with the regular Epping Gardens residents, and that this potentially helped spread the virus.
The number of healthcare workers in Melbourne who have contracted the virus has reached 2,692, with 70 to 80 per cent of these cases caught at work according to Premier Dan Andrews.
Sue Agnello says that family friends at the home have also passed away and they have all been left “broken” as a result. Other residents are also shocked and asking what has happened to their friends, many of them unaware that fellow residents have passed away.
“Every single one of the grandchildren, my nieces, my sister-in-law is still crying. My husband is broken, but you don’t send your loved ones off like this,” says Sue.
“When people die, in their last moment of life, you want to be there to hold their hand. As my husband said, ‘We should have been there to pat her head. We should have been there saying ‘Mum it’s okay, it’s okay, don’t be scared.'”
“My mother-in-law went from Epping Gardens into an ambulance and there’s no translator. People were obviously in PPE gear, over to a hospital, in emergency, all in PPE gear, hazmat or whatever.”
“Up to a ward with no translator. Everyone’s in PPE gear, you can imagine how those wards were running, with people walking around everywhere with masks and swabs and that. That would have terrified her.”
Sue and her family are not suing for any monetary gain she says, but for every family who has suffered as a result of the aged care system.
“I’m going to be honest here. This needs to never happen to any other family ever again. Aged care needs to be addressed. Our concern is we signed a contract to put our loved ones into Epping Gardens, for them to give her a duty of care and look after her. The owners of Heritage Care own another eight or nine centres. Is this going on in their other centres?” she said.
“It’s about respect and dignity of our loved ones and it’s about making the government stand up and take some responsibility and accountability, to get their heads together and get it right.
“Well, as my husband said, his mother doesn’t have a voice here anymore, because that got taken away from her. He said, ‘If we don’t speak, this is going to get swept under the carpet.'”
Time for retribution
Carbone has also launched proceedings against St Basil’s home in Melbourne with over 20 families joining so far. He believes that these lawsuits will shake up the aged care sector.
He argues that this action is a warning to large providers and potential investors that aged care is no longer a “cash cow”. And he says that providers should be liable for criminal prosecution in severe neglect cases such as we are seeing across Victoria.
“Unless there’s some sort of retributional penalty, it seems like these things will keep going on. I think you need that to keep people honest.”
As it stands, the Agnellos have not received an apology or even a message of condolence from any Heritage Care or Epping Gardens representatives.
Yet this may never bring peace to the family, who now have to face months reliving it all with the impending court proceedings and the constant memory of their last goodbyes with Carmela.
“We probably got the last words out of her, on that Sunday afternoon at two o’clock … she blew us a kiss and said, ‘I love you all.’ I don’t think anyone in our family will ever forget that, because every one of us should have been there holding her hand.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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