‘I just want to know what happened to my dad’: Families back coroner’s probe into St Basil’s

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Jayne Erdevicki remembers the moment she learnt of her father’s death inside St Basil’s aged care home in Melbourne as “the worst call of my life”.

“Not only was I told abruptly, but it was also cold-hearted, it was just a horrible experience and that phone call’s going to torment me for some time to come,” she said.

“[The caller] goes, ‘I’m just calling to let you know your father’s passed away’.

“I started crying and I said: ‘Why didn’t anybody call? Why didn’t anybody call? I’ve been ringing and ringing.’

“And [they] go: ‘Oh he was fine this morning, he was fine this afternoon, when I checked on him he’d passed away’.”

The news came as a shock to Ms Erdevicki, who had previously been told her father, who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, was showing few symptoms.

She remembers her dad, 82-year-old Boro Petkovic, as an “honest human being, a good father and a good grandfather”.

“I just loved him.”

An olive branch is tied to a fence with blue and white ribbons.
There have been 160 cases linked to St Basil’s aged care home in Fawkner in Melbourne’s north.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

She now wants answers on not just how her father’s health deteriorated so rapidly seemingly within the space of a few hours, but also why she was left in the dark about so much of what was going on at the nursing home at the time.

On Thursday, the Coroners Court of Victoria announced it would hold an inquiry into the deaths of five residents at the home, with the potential to expand that to more locations.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck announced last month the Commonwealth would also conduct an investigation into the outbreak, which is linked to 160 cases.

The outbreak at Epping Gardens overtook St Basil’s as the biggest aged care home outbreak in the state on Thursday and is now linked to 169 cases.

Ms Erdevicki’s father passed away on July 23, a day after all St Basil’s staff were stood down and sent into quarantine and a replacement workforce brought in by the Commonwealth.

Mr Colbeck and other health authorities have acknowledged that the change in staffing, aimed at preventing further spread of the virus among workers and residents, created confusion, gaps in patient care and strained communication with families.

A sign on the fence outside St Basil's Homes for the Aged has olive branches and blue and white ribbons tied to its sides.
Residents will begin to return to the home after they were all removed and sent to hospitals on Friday last week.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

Ms Erdevicki said she wanted any investigation into the outbreak to look at the impact the staffing change had on St Basil’s residents.

“The fact that they took away every single familiar face to the residents I think actually would have been a huge impact on their wellbeing that there was no familiar face that knew what these residents were going through,” she said.

“But at the same time I also want, I do have concerns about the way nursing homes are run so I’m hoping this investigation will look into the way the takeover was done, but also look into making these homes a better place.”

Ms Erdevicki sent a detailed letter to the coroner in late July outlining her experience, including the difficult wait she endured for a cause of death certificate so she could lay her father to rest.

“I just want to know what happened to my dad, and I hope that this does a whole makeover on nursing homes and the way they’re run,” she said.

St Basil’s prepares to bring back some residents

On Thursday, St Basil’s staff began to return to the home from their quarantine and prepared to care for residents who had been moved to hospital at the peak of the outbreak.

Mr Kontis said residents who wished to return to the home, which had been deep cleaned and declared “COVID-19 free”, would be brought back in groups of five so that their care needs could be fully assessed.

“All returning residents will be tested regularly and will be admitted to separate COVID-19 negative and positive sections of the home to prevent any further infection,” he said.

St Basil’s chairman Konstantin Kontis said in a letter to families the board was mourning the loss of all residents who had died and offered its condolences.

All of the St Basil’s staff who had become infected with coronavirus were “on the way to recovery”, he said.

Not all families want residents to return

Ellen Grouios, whose 80-year-old mother Dimitra Elias is in the Northern Hospital being treated for COVID-19, said she did not want her returning to the home.

“Why on earth would we pull her out of hospital to send her back there, when they couldn’t manage the situation three weeks ago?” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

She said there were lots of things her kind, caring and “full of beans” mum “loved” about St Basil’s, including being able to speak her language.

But she said there were issues she hoped the investigations would examine and encouraged other families to put in submissions.

“Because each and every one needs to be heard, their voice needs to be heard to make a difference,” she said.

Families raise ‘fundamental questions’ about care

Older Persons Advocacy Network CEO Craig Gear said he had been in touch with several families from St Basil’s, who all had a right to know what had gone wrong.

“These families have raised some fundamental questions about quality and safety and concerns that were going back before the COVID outbreak but definitely continued during that,” he said.

“Why wasn’t the facility more prepared for this outbreak? We knew the lessons of Newmarch, why weren’t they prepared?

He said while the home may have developed pandemic plans and training, he was not sure they had rehearsed those plans as part of their preparations.

“I’m not sure how the prevention control measures were managed and overseen but that is something that the review needs to really look at,” he said.

Mr Gear said across the aged care sector generally, there were plenty of workers doing their best, but the system needed to be one that listened to families and acted on their concerns.

“COVID has actually shown how I suppose fragile our aged care system is and I think older people deserve to have the appropriate quality and safety and the level of care that they need,” he said.

“What we do need is to actually, I suppose, rally around the family members and the residents who are there at the moment.”

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