Hollow victory for family in fight over son.
'G', whose parents were banned from visiting after they repeatedly raised concerns with doctors at the Austin Hospital over his treatment with high doses of the anti-pyschotic drug Zyprexa.
Photo: The Age
August 13, 2006
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What would you do if your son was locked up in a public hospital and you were prevented from seeing him or getting information on his treatment? A Melbourne family confronted by this situation tells their story.
A COUPLE who say they were banned for months from visiting their son at the Austin Hospital because they questioned his medication have won a legal battle to stop doctors stripping them of all rights to look after him.
The couple was shocked when told the public hospital would be applying to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to have an independent guardian appointed as their son's primary carer.
Outraged, they hired a barrister and doggedly fought the case, resulting in the hospital withdrawing its application at the end of a three-hour hearing.
The couple, from Scoresby, feared that their son, 30, who the state's public advocate, Julian Gardner, has asked The Sunday Age not to name because of concerns for his privacy, was being given very high doses of the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa, which is used to treat schizophrenia.
They were worried about reports in the US that long-term use of the drug has been linked with serious side effects, including seizures, irregular heart beat, weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes.
The father said that one of his biggest concerns was that he did not know if his son, G, was getting the best treatment.
"Every time I ask what treatment is he on, how much medication is he getting, they say I'm a raving lunatic and I'm interfering," he said.
The father said he was told by hospital staff on April 13 that he would no longer be able to see G after repeatedly raising concerns with doctors about the amounts of Zyprexa being administered to his son. He eventually saw his son for 15 minutes on June 28 — a day after the VCAT hearing — but was again banned because the hospital claimed his visits upset G.
The increasing tension between the family and Austin Hospital resulted in G being transferred to Dandenong Hospital on July 21. The ban on the father remains.
The Austin says the father has been abusive and aggressive towards staff, which he denies.
The hospital's director of psychiatry, Professor Graham Burrows, told The Sunday Age that he could not discuss any individual's case as it was confidential under the Mental Health Act. But he said G's case was a longstanding one and Austin's mental health staff had listened extensively to G's father's views.
"The case has been reviewed by numerous experts, including the state's chief psychiatrist, Associate Professor Amgad Tanaghow, who have all agreed that the treatment provided is appropriate for the individual," he said.
"Austin Health has a history of accepting patients with complex mental health conditions and the community can be assured we are treating this patient in the most appropriate way to ensure he receives optimum care."
In a letter to the family informing them of the VCAT hearing, the Austin's Dr Peter Bosanac said: "I understand that you may find this action distressing, however we believe that in the light of your continued opposition to our treatment plan, it is the only reasonable option.
"As G's primary carers, you and your family will have every opportunity to put forward your views to VCAT.
"As we have discussed with you on previous occasions we consider that G suffers from schizophrenia. His current treatment, including antipsychotic medication, has substantially improved his mental state.
"We believe that your current opposition to his treatment, including antipsychotic medication, has the effect of reducing G's compliance with treatment and lessening his trust in the treatment plan. This has the effect of perpetuating and increasing his symptoms and associated aggression. "In turn, this necessitates greater periods of time in intensive settings of care, such as seclusion, and delays the commencement of community-based rehabilitation."
Dr Bosanac said he did not believe a second opinion sought by the family from prominent psychiatrist Dr Yolande Lucire was supported by the evidence or weight of psychiatric opinion.
Dr Lucire, from Sydney, describes the situation involving G, who had been an involuntary patient locked up in Austin's acute psychiatric unit's isolation ward since December before being transferred to Dandenong Hospital on July 21, as "being like Soviet Russia".
And mental health groups claim that families are often in dispute with doctors treating their mentally ill children.
Sane Australia's executive director, Barbara Hocking, said it was "highly unusual" for parents to be banned from seeing their son in hospital, but many families complained that medical professionals ignored their concerns.
Mental Illness Fellowship Victoria's chief executive, Elizabeth Crowther, agreed.
"We frequently get families expressing concerns that the mental health service hasn't listened to them, hasn't understood their questions and hasn't assisted them to get the information they need," Ms Crowther said. "In some circumstances, it's been a pretty awful situation where hospital staff have taken a high-handed approach but I haven't heard anything like this (G's case)."
Dr Lucire — who has given evidence at several criminal trials in NSW on the dangers of antipsychotic drugs, including Zyprexa — said G's case was "appalling".
"The problem is G is one of thousands," she said. She was not even convinced that G had schizophrenia.
He has been in and out of hospitals for the past 10 years after being admitted with a cannabis-induced headache and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
"Nobody has jurisdiction over a mental health doctor's diagnosis," Dr Lucire said.
Asked why G's doctors would keep him in hospital against his family's wishes, Dr Lucire said: "Because they don't know any better. That is the way the medical profession behaves. They cannot bear to be told anything. They think they know everything."
Dr Lucire's offer to treat G at a private hospital in NSW was rejected.
G's father said his son was basically a prisoner of the Victorian mental health system.
He has written to the Health Department, Health Minister, Attorney-General, Health Services Commissioner and the state's chief psychiatrist, who have all refused to intervene.
A spokesman for the chief psychiatrist said he had reviewed the treatment provided to G and "endorsed the clinical judgement of the doctors currently treating him".
G's father takes little comfort from the professor's assurances.
"Basically, any person in Victoria can lose their son to the state by the stroke of a doctor's pen," he said. "