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Student’s Good Samaritan act leads to coronial inquest appearance

21 February 2020 | Avant Media

Paul Gilhooly was a 29 year-old medical student completing a placement in a regional hospital. He was travelling on an over-night train to work when he found himself called upon to act as a Good Samaritan.

During the journey, a fellow passenger’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and he appeared agitated. The train staff found a soft drink bottle that smelt of spirits near his seat. The passenger was told it was unlawful to drink his own alcohol and he would have to leave the train. They refused, so the train staff decided to remove him from the train at the next stop and called police for assistance.

Three train staff physically removed the passenger from the train. Once on the platform, he was restrained face-down by two of the staff and was heard to say “I can’t breathe properly.” After being restrained for about 10 minutes, he started “huffing and puffing” then became unconscious and unresponsive so the train staff placed him in the recovery position and called the police.

Recalling the experience, Dr Gilhooly said, “no one was doing anything. Everyone was just standing around and watching, so I thought as a fellow human being and medical student with the skills and experience, I needed to assist the police”.

Two police officers and Dr Gilhooly provided CPR until the ambulance arrived and the passenger was transported to hospital, where he was sadly pronounced dead.

Avant supports member through investigation

“The police took my details at the time of the incident and given the outcome, I called Avant’s Medico-legal Advisory Service (MLAS) the next day to notify Avant of the incident and to seek advice,” he says.

Avant’s senior medico-legal advisor was able to provide general advice to Dr Gilhooly immediately. This included:

  • the incident could be regarded as a death in custody and the matter may be referred to the coroner
  • the police will require a written statement and this request should come from them in writing
  • the police and the coroner may ask for medical information regarding the passenger.

Avant instructed solicitors to assist Dr Gilhooly to prepare a written statement to the police, on behalf of the coroner, in relation to the investigation surrounding the passenger’s death.

Dr Gilhooly was asked to give evidence at the coronial inquest. We supported Dr Gilhooly over a two-year period by providing legal expertise, and a point of contact for the coroner’s court. We also assisted Dr Gilhooly in preparing for the inquest and briefed a lawyer who presented evidence on his behalf.

While admitting to being apprehensive in the lead up to the inquest, Dr Gilhooly says Avant’s support and reassurance made the process easier.

“Avant provided fantastic support and assistance from the time of the incident and right throughout the inquest. I couldn’t fault anything – it was beyond what I was expecting,” he says.

Coroner’s findings

In handing down the findings, the coroner found that on the balance of probabilities, the passenger’s death resulted from a combination of factors. These included methylamphetamine toxicity and physiological stress and subsequent cardiac arrhythmia due to forcible restraint by train staff.

The coroner made recommendations to the Minister for Police and the Minister for Transport regarding protocols when assistance is requested for passengers.

Good Samaritan act acknowledged

Despite the tragic outcome, at the end of the inquest, the passenger’s father personally acknowledged Dr Gilhooly for his efforts to save their child’s life.

“I’ll never forget the moment when the passenger’s father approached me at the inquest and thanked me for the help I provided that day. Although it was a tragic outcome, I was taken aback when the family thanked me” Dr Gilhooly said.

Advice for medical students

Dr Gilhooly said the experience had made him grow as a doctor. “Tragedies and emergencies can happen anywhere”, he said. “As a Good Samaritan with medical training, it’s important to step up and offer assistance to people when they are vulnerable. I have learnt that despite what might be going on in the background, the families and the public acknowledge and appreciate your efforts".

For medical students who may find themselves in a similar situation, Dr Gilhooly reiterated having the courage to step in as a Good Samaritan as it could make all the difference.

“Have the courage to step in and help, and don’t be afraid,” he said.

As a medical student, you may think you are not qualified or experienced enough to provide assistance in emergency situations. However, students are often trained in basic life support, and you may be the best medically qualified person available.

In Australia there is no common law requirement for medical students and doctors to provide assistance as a ‘Good Samaritan’ in an emergency however, New South Wales and the Northern Territory have specific legislation that applies to assistance in emergencies.

Medical students and doctors do have an ethical obligation to offer assistance in an emergency, taking into account your own safety, skills and the availability of other options1. Based on Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia a doctor may be criticised for failing to assist where they were capable of assisting and simply preferred not to get involved.

Good Samaritan laws throughout Australia provide protection from legal liability, as long as care is given in good faith and you are not impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time.

More information

If you would like further advice on this or other medico-legal issues, visit our website or for immediate advice, call our Medico-legal Advisory Service on 1800 128 268, 24-7 in emergencies.

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Know your cover

Your Student Indemnity Insurance Policy covers you, subject to its terms and conditions, for any claims that may arise in relation to you providing care as a Good Samaritan. It also extends to Good Samaritan acts worldwide.

Reference

1Medical Board of Australia’s Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia, section 2.5.

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