Night unthinkable happened: ‘Suffering you cannot explain’
IT was a night nobody had imagined. One year ago today, the Gold Coast, indeed the nation, was shocked by the scenes that unfolded at the Earle Haven nursing home.
None were more shocked than those that witnessed the harrowing events at first hand.
But there had been warning signs in the months and years before.
For the first time, in the words of the whistleblowers, the heroes who responded and the residents themselves, this is the full inside story of what happened to bring about that night of pain.
GOLD Coast Health emergency doctor Hayley Frieslich stood at the door at Earle Haven on the night of July 11, 2019, and felt helpless in the "chaos" and "desperation" happening around her.
Vital equipment such as medication, fridges, beds and gloves was being taken out the door and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"I hadn't experienced that level of human distress," Dr Frieslich said. "I was thinking we have to make sure this never happens again. The level of human suffering cannot be explained in words.
"As we were just standing at the front door I saw multiple pieces of equipment being taken, and I found that really distressing to see that being marched out of the door knowing it would have a significant impact for the residents.
"There was just a real sense of disempowerment, knowing they needed those things but there is nothing I could personally do to stop this."
Unable to stop the removal of Help Street equipment, staff were then tasked with calling all the nursing homes in the area to find space.
QAS officers assessed and filled out "disaster cards" to assess each patient and find vital information such as names, dates of birth and medical needs.
"A few of the Earle Haven staff stayed back knowing they would not get paid, which helped with identification," Dr Frieslich said.
A GP for the facility also arrived to help identify patients.
Once the decision was made that it was unsafe for residents to remain, due to the missing equipment, a mass logistical operation was launched.
For Queensland ambulance officer in charge Andre Gollop, seeing patients watch as their homes were closed around them was unforgettable.
"It was on a different level," he said. "Often we will see traumatic injuries but these were psychological injuries. The residents were really distressed they had just lost their home."
When personal belongings could not fit in the ambulance with the patient, paramedics arranged for taxis filled with items to follow.
Twenty-one ambulance units and 48 officers were involved. Senior officers with prior experience of a Gold Coast hospital shift used their knowledge to establish a plan.
"Everyone just wanted to see a positive outcome,'' he said.
"Everyone just got stuck in. There were no airs or graces. From senior managers to the most junior, people were involved to make sure these residents were cared for. That was the stand-out thing of the night for me, seeing how well the system can respond to a disaster like this.
THE WARNING SIGNS
GOLD Coast grandmother Lorraine Cook smuggled a sandwich into Earle Haven's high-care facility every day because she was worried her husband John, 84, was not being fed.
She was among the first to blow the whistle about the treatment of residents in the Hibiscus and Orchid houses, informing the Federal Government in February 2019 - five months before the nursing wing was shut down.
Authorities eventually called her in November of that year, four months after the home had been shut and evacuated.
One year on from the tragedy, Mrs Cook says she has little faith left in the system.
"I put in an official complaint about Help Street in February," Mrs Cook said.
"I got a letter in April saying they were looking into it. I got a call back in November.
"I said 'well, you are a bit bloody late, we got turfed out in July'.
"She said 'I am sorry'. I said it was too late to be sorry. She said 'will you accept our apology'. I said 'I can't, I can't do that'."
Mrs Cook said the complaint was sparked by concerns about food and pressure from staff on families to use their services.
"They were trying to force everybody to go to their chemist," she said.
"Then they brought in their own caterers. They couldn't eat it, it was that hard.
"I used to take my husband in a sandwich every day so at least he would have something to eat."
Mrs Cook said she was confronted by staff when they discovered she had complained.
"But the way I see it is whatever goes on in this nursing home is my business, whether it happens to be my husband or somebody else, because you have a lot of people in there who never have family.
"I was there every day. Somebody has to speak up for these poor buggers."
Mrs Cook, who lived within walking distance of Earle Haven where her husband stayed for three years, now has to catch a bus to see him each day at his new facility, but she is happy to put up with the inconvenience.
She and John, who suffers from dementia, have two children together and both worked in the abattoirs at Dubbo before moving to the Gold Coast.
"He is in a nice nursing home now. Compared to (Earle Haven) and where they put him those 12 weeks, it is a palace.
"But there still is not enough staff. You see the same patterns as before. You talk to other people. Nothing has changed. It is still the same things going on. You can see what happened at Earle Haven will happen at other nursing homes.
"Not the one I am at … but it will happen."
WHAT IT'S LIKE NOW
RESIDENTS still living at the Earle Haven retirement village say major changes have taken place in the past year - for the better.
While both high-care facilities - Hibiscus House and Orchid House - have been dormant since the night of July 11, 2019, the 900 people living independently on site say the residents committee has come out fighting.
In addition to the closure of the high-care facility, the state Department of Housing and federal Health Department have both been on site to address complaints.
A resident in the complex said a new village manager and financial director had also visited, putting some distance between residents and the owners following the tense period.
"There appear to be signs that residents can observe an improvement with gardeners, some painting work, upgrade of swimming pool, safety issues," the resident said.
"We were all in total shock and disbelief when it (the closure) happened," he said.
"The real sadness was where spouses were separated to other facilities around the Coast - cut off from family members.
"But now there is a strong hope high-care options can return.
"They were one of the major reasons people chose to live here, so spouses could stay together with their needs."
The resident said many were worried the scandal could hurt the investment residents had made to buy property in the village.
Earle Haven managing director Arthur Miller said he still believed it was the wrong decision to move the residents, and blamed Help Street for the ongoing crisis.
Mr Miller, 79, said he had planned to lease out Hibiscus and Orchid houses to a high-care provider at the start of the year, only to be foiled by the coronavirus pandemic.
"They have all been lies, the aged care is only a small part of the business," Mr Miller said this week.
"I believe it was unfair the licence was taken away. The Federal Government should look at the third parties, not me, I was not a nurse there.
"I have never had an experience like that before in my life, but Earle Haven is still running. Hundreds of people live here."
Originally published as Night unthinkable happened: 'Suffering you cannot explain'