The prison doctor who examined an Aboriginal woman who later died in custody of complications from heroin withdrawal told an inquest he had no training in addiction medicine.
Dr Sean Runacres examined Veronica Nelson, 37, on her arrival at the Dame Phyllis Frost Center in Melbourne on New Years Eve 2019.
The former paramedic considered her well enough to be placed in the general prison population.
Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta wife was found dead in her cell in the early hours of January 2, 2020, after repeated intercom calls for help.
Speaking today, Dr Runacres repeatedly told the inquest he did not recall giving Ms Nelson a medical assessment despite prison CCTV showing him interacting with her when she arrived at the prison.
“I don’t remember how she presented and can only rely on medical notes and video footage,” he said.
Poorly recorded medical history
Dr Runacres admitted to the coroner that there were several errors in Ms Nelson’s medical records.
He made just three changes to records seized by another doctor when Ms Nelson was remanded to the same jail in February 2019.
He did not specify that she was withdrawing from alcohol or drugs.
“I don’t believe anyone will look into that, so I don’t bother to talk about it.”
It also marked her medical history as nil despite previous medical records showing she was treated for drug withdrawal during her previous detention.
“ZERO medical history…that’s incorrect, isn’t it?” asked assistant counsel Sharon Lacy.
“Yes,” he answered.
Nor was other information relating to Ms Nelson’s hepatitis status transferred from the completed records on her arrival records to the main prison medical records.
“I didn’t do that adequately.”
Accusations of lying
Dr Runacres also accused a prison nurse of lying in her testimony at the inquest.
Registered nurse Stephanie Hills broke down during her testimony earlier, saying she had to physically support Ms Hills to take her blood pressure during her first health assessment.
Advocate Assistant Coroner Sharon Lacey asked: ‘She told this inquest you didn’t get up from your chair.
“Ms. Hills is a liar,” Dr. Runacres has repeatedly said.
“I found her excitable, alarmed easily and I don’t value her clinical judgment very much.”
Dr Runacres was also asked about Ms Hills’ claims that Ms Nelson could not even walk to the scales to be weighed.
“That’s a ridiculous statement. If they go in and out of consciousness, they’re not able to walk down a hallway.
“I don’t invent data. This is reprehensible and would suggest that the information provided to me (by Ms. Hills) is incorrect.”
Nurse’s requests for statement ignored
Ms Hills told a Victorian coroner she had just finished her round of medication when corrections staff informed her of Veronica’s death.
A nurse practitioner was among those who brought her back from the other side of the prison because she was so distressed.
“I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been filled when I arrived for my shift the morning she had passed,” she said.
Ms Hills said she suggested her regional manager make a statement about his assessment of Veronica.
The manager suggested they do it another time. However, even after repeating her request, it never materialized.
“He didn’t want my statement,” Ms Hills said.
The nurse said there was a ‘clear hierarchy’ at the prison between Mr Runacres who assessed Veronica first and other nurses.
Ms Hills said she worked between 60 and 70 shifts with him and he often ignored patients’ suggestions of what they needed.
Erin Gardner, the lawyer representing Ms Hills’ employer, Correct Care, previously asked Ms Hills why she did not escalate the matter through the Corrections Supervisor or arrange for an ambulance to be called.
“What I’m suggesting to you is that the reason you didn’t do any of these things is because it wasn’t as you say now,” Ms Gardner charged.
“That’s incorrect,” Ms Hill replied.