In caring hands

12 July 2023

Please be advised that this article discusses death and deceased persons.

SA Pathology proudly provides mortuary services within Flinders Medical Centre (FMC), Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH), Women's and Children's Hospital (WCH) and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (tQEH), with each service adapted to the needs of the community it cares for.

We are committed to providing people-centred care throughout life’s journey. This is even more important following the death of a loved one, where managing grief while navigating the myriad requirements and responsibilities that follow death can be overwhelming. Our staff work tirelessly to provide compassionate and professional care to the deceased and hope to offer a sense of peace to the grieving by knowing their loved one continues to be cared for, even after death.

What happens when a patient dies?

The patient’s end-of-life journey begins with a phone call to the mortuary team who immediately ready themselves for the new arrival; it’s vital to them that every patient is received and treated with dignity and respect.

Shannon Petersen, Mortuary Technician from tQEH says, "We talk to the patients as though they’re still with us and treat them as though they’re our family members. They must be treated with respect - that’s what they deserve."

Richard Davey, Mortuary Technician at FMC says that getting to know the deceased through conversations with their family helps to ensure their wishes are respected and they continue to receive culturally safe care.

At the RAH, Head of Unit RAH Mortuary/ SA Tissue Bank Stephen Nygaard says the team are heavily involved with the Aboriginal Liaison staff to ensure they are meeting the needs of every community that attends the mortuary.

"We’re always working in the best interests of families. We will sometimes assist in cutting locks of hair if the family has been unable to do so, and we also assist in returning the deceased’s body to country. We’re indebted to the Aboriginal Liaison; they help us so much especially in understanding what the families would like and need."

The State-wide Perinatal and Paediatric autopsy service, provided by the team at the WCH, cares for babies, and children up to the age of 18. They also provide this service for the Northern Territory.

Alison Tanner, Mortuary Manager, and the team recognise how vital it is to show empathy and compassion as most families are unprepared for the loss of a baby or child.

"For babies, those less than 28 days of age after birth, we offer memento packages (if requested by the family) which comprise of photographs, foot and handprints, bed card, name band and a lock of hair if possible. Families can choose all or none of these options.

We can also provide some of these things for older patients as requested."

Supporting loved ones

Our mortuaries also facilitate family viewings where possible, taking time and care to prepare the patient.

“We ensure the patient is comfortable; we place a blanket over them and make sure a pillow is placed under their head. We do all we can to make them as peaceful as possible.” Shannon says.

In non-coronial cases, this includes being able to hold and touch their loved one and spend time with them in a quiet environment.

Our mortuaries also care for members of the community whose families cannot be located.

Where this happens, the patient is transferred to another facility until a next of kin is found. Our staff say they often form a strong bond with their long-term patients, but they’re always happy when they see families reunited.

Providing answers for those left behind

At the WCH and RAH, the teams also perform non-coronial autopsies.

These are always authorised by a next of kin and are used to corroborate pathology findings, medical research, class actions, and diagnose metastatic disease.

Alison (WCH) says "The perinatal autopsy can reveal findings which may be significantly different to the clinical diagnosis. This may impact on counselling for the index pregnancy as well as for siblings and parents and often for future pregnancy."

Stephen (RAH) says, "In cases where we are unsure of the primary cancer and it has spread, this information can be extremely helpful for families. In one case where we found breast cancer, we were able to inform the patient's adult daughters who were then able to go on and seek genetic counselling and other services."

Stephen says increasing understanding for the family is his main goal when conducting an autopsy. "Sometimes it’s not even about medical consequences, it's just for closure so that the family can know."

Patients can also choose to donate their corneas to The Eye Bank of South Australia, located at FMC. Shannon says, "The retrieval has to be done within 72 hours of the patient passing and also depends on their prior medical conditions."

Although all mortuary sites care for coronial patients, FMC manages the most, with at least 40% of all patients falling into this category. The workload at this morgue often includes coroner’s cases from the Lyell McEwin and Whyalla hospitals.

On top of standard patient care, coronial cases require an abundance of paperwork, scheduling, patient visual identifications and eventual transfer to a funeral home.

Moving forward

Stephen says it can be a tough job some days but "Everyone is very open, and we know that there are support services available if we need them. We also talk with each other to make sure everyone is looked after and feeling okay."

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