Two Chelmsford hospital deep sleep therapy nurses give evidence – Gill & Herron defamation trial

19 – 30 June 2020 – Cross examination of two nurses who worked at Chelmsford Private Hospital between 1972 and 1975

Dr John Gill and former psychiatrist John Herron were involved in the deep sleep therapy scandal at the Chelmsford Private Hospital (CPH) in Sydney that was the subject of a Royal Commission in 1989. Gill and Herron are suing HarperCollins Publishing Australia and ABC journalist Steve Cannane for defamation over a 28 page chapter of Cannane’s book Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia

See this link for the trial’s listing details at the Federal Court in Sydney.

DST – deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford

Deep sleep therapy (DST) is a psychiatric treatment in which drugs are used to keep patients unconscious for extended periods. The height of its use was from the 1930s to the 1960s.

DST was practised (in combination with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other therapies) by Dr  Harry Bailey between 1962 and 1979 at the Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney. As practised by Bailey, deep sleep therapy involved long periods of barbiturate-induced unconsciousness. Wikipedia

Nurse-1Four nursing staff have given evidence so far. The four also gave evidence at the Chelmsford Hospital Royal Commission in 1989. They’ve said that Dr John Herron performed the ECT on Dr Bailey’s DST patients nearly nightly. Another doctor, Ian Gardiner, administered ECT to Bailey’s patients during the day. Dr Bailey was described as charismatic. He worked at his rooms in Macquarie Street Sydney late into the night, and also visited his CPH patients at night, sometimes very late. The Chelmsford hospital was partly owned and managed by Dr John Gill.

The sedation ward at CPH had six beds which were often fully occupied. It was staffed in each shift by a registered nurse (RN) and two nurse’s aides. Sedation patients were turned every two hours. Observations were recorded and medications given every four hours by the RN. They were fed and medicated through a nasogastric tube (Ryles tube) and rarely conscious enough to be able to use a toilet. Patients being taken out of sedation (lightening) were moved to a separate ward.

Cross examination of nursing staff Reid and Brash

Ms Reid and Dr Brash’s evidence in chief was given in the form of affidavits which are not publicly available. They were cross examined by Sue Chrysanthou, counsel for the applicants. The following therefore represents their responses to challenges to their evidence. Former Matrons Julie Bothman (nee Smith) has given evidence and Marcia Fawdry is still under cross examination — blog to follow.

Jan Reid

Nurse’s aide, Jan Reid, worked at CPH from 1972 to 1975 in the sedation ward. She acknowledged that in her evidence at the Royal Commission she’d said that Dr Herron appeared to be dedicated to his patients. However, she told the court she felt that he should have examined the patients more thoroughly before performing ECT.

It was pointed out that she also told the RC that she viewed DST as a healing and sensible treatment. She replied to that, ‘I assumed that it was normal treatment because I was not psychiatrically trained.’

Sue Chrysanthou suggested that Ms Reid was now contradicting what she told the RC because she’d been influenced by publicity since. The witness denied that and said that anyone that worked at CPH could see that the treatmet was a tremendous risk to the patients.

In reexamination Ms Reid said that there was talk among the nursing staff that some patients had not consented to ECT, and were admitted without an ECT consent form.  She said that in most hospitals consent forms are kept with patients’ notes but that she did not see any consent forms among patients’ notes at Chelmsford, which she thought was strange.

Dr Noeline Brash (RN)

Dr Brash (then nurse Brash) was an experienced psychiatric nurse who worked in the sedation ward for about five months in 1974. She said that she did not know until after giving evidence at the Royal Commission in 1989 how many DST patients had died during their treatment at CPH.

When asked whether she thought Dr Bailey believed in his treatment, Dr Brash said that he was ‘a man of great hubris,’ he didn’t hide the fact he was conducting the treatment and appeared sincere in his belief in its effectiveness ‘to the point of being obsessive about it.’

The main sedative drug Tuenil was administered to DST patients every 4 – 6 hours. Dr Brash said that the registered nurse on duty in the sedation ward was given discretion as to whether to administer a half or full dose. She said that she withheld the sedative on a number of occasions when she felt that the patient was showing adverse effects such as signs of breathing difficulty, or if the patient was not rousable.

When Chrysanthou asked Dr Brash if she recalled any traumas on her shifts, she answered, ‘it depends on what you call traumas’. She recalled a case of a male DST patient who she transferred to the general hospital at Hornsby when she suspected he was on the verge of respiratory distress.  She said that the protocol when anyone went into any form of distress was to contact Dr Gill who lived 15 to 20 minutes drive away in Wahroonga.

When asked why she did not mention the incident in her evidence to the Royal Commission, Dr Brash answered that it may have been due to the way she was questioned there. The patient hadn’t gone into full blown respiratory distress because she’d acted early. She also stated in her evidence that there was no resuscitation trolley kept in the sedation ward.

In relation to Dr Herron conducting ECT on DST patients, Dr Brash said that she had to insist that he give them muscle relaxants prior to doing so, and that if she did not insist he would not use them. She said that muscle relaxants protect the patients from the effects of ECT induced seizures, and that his attitude to her insistence that he use them was derisive.

In the final week Dr Brash worked at CPH, she said that the hospital acquired a Bird’s Ventilator machine. She said when Dr Herron pointed it out to her, she asked him, ‘who is going to use it?’ She said that staff would need to be trained in a ‘post-graduate setting’ specifically, to be able to operate the machine. She said that she had the training because she’d done a post grad course in respiratory diseases, but none of the other nurses were adequately trained to operate it.

Dr Brash said that her misgivings over the appropriateness of the ventilator resulted in a confrontation with Matron Sandra Robson, who she said reacted with hostility. Dr Brash said she resigned from the hospital before she was fired, but had planned to leave anyway to travel overseas. She said that she was tired of being overruled in her professional judgment — reprimanded for having the DST patients too lightly sedated.

When challenged as to why she had not mentioned the disputes with Dr Herron and the Matron in her evidence to the Royal Commission, Dr Brash said that the questions weren’t asked. She added that finding out about the death toll at CPH following the Royal Commission ’caused me to seriously think through what went on there — I’ve had a lot of time to think about it since.’

When asked if she’d added to her evidence because she’d been influenced by others, she replied that she had not heard anything from others. ‘I had put it all behind me.’


Day 9: introduction to the case

Day 10: defence opening address

Days 11 – 13: cross examination of author Steve Cannane

Weeks 3 and 4 Chelmsford hospital deep sleep therapy patients give evidence

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part one – Professors Patrick McGorry and Ian Hickie

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part two – Dr Phillips and Dr Smith, and pharmacologist Professor Whyte

Expert evidence from psychiatrists – part three – Professor Gordon Parker

Former Matron Smith gives evidence

Former Matron Fawdry gives evidence

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