Paper mask could've saved woman

ANGELA CLUTTERBUCK
Last updated 20:17 20/02/2014
Mark Hutchings

IN NEED OF MEANING: Mark Hutchings hopes the death of his daughter, Sharon Camisa, won't be in vain with others learning of the dangers of potting mix.

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A paper mask worth a few cents would have saved the life of an Australian woman who died from legionnaires' disease.

That is the view of Mark Hutchings, who lost his 42-year-old daughter, Sharon Camisa, on January 14 after she contracted a strain of the bacteria linked to potting mix.

Hutchings was the first to say his daughter should have sought medical treatment sooner.

His mission was not to blame manufacturers or the health system, rather, he wanted to warn everyone about the dangers of using potting mix without a mask, so no other family has to suffer the heartache his has.

Hutchings also wants legislation introduced that would see dust masks attached to, if not alongside, potting mix at the point of sale.

Camisa died in a major Western Australian hospital, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, after spending weeks in a coma, leaving a husband, two children and a grandchild.

"In the end her lungs were so damaged they fell apart," Hutchings said.

"She haemorrhaged to death. It was a nightmare for everyone, weeks watching her die slowly."

While Camisa lived with a form of arthritis, Hutchings described his daughter as "a very health-conscious person".

"She had her own home gym and did half an hour on that each morning before she went to work and an hour when she got home and she also did pilates," he said.

Indeed, when Camisa first became ill she and those around her attributed it to her arthritis, which she had been taking medication for.

On December 2, Hutchings' wife urged Camisa to see a doctor when she began vomiting.

Camisa's boss at Chicken Treat in the Western Australian town of Collie joined Hutchings and his wife in pleading with her to visit the hospital when, several days later, her condition deteriorated.

On December 9, Hutchings received a phone call from Camisa, who was in agony, asking him to come over. He half carried her to the car then drove her to Collie Hospital, where she was admitted for pain management.

"They thought it might have been a negative reaction to her arthritis medication," Hutchings said.

"They contacted her specialist and she was put on new medication. That didn't fix the problem."

On December 15, following an X-ray, Camisa was diagnosed with pneumonia and transferred to Bunbury Hospital, where she was placed in an induced coma and airlifted to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and placed on life support.

"That's when they did a cultures test and found out she had legionnaires' disease, a strain linked to potting mix."

It was early to mid-November that Camisa had begun re-potting plants, Hutchings recalled.

"She put all the potting mix and fertiliser and everything on a blanket and sat there under the verandah and did a whole lot of potting in her backyard," Hutchings said.

"She was experimenting with a range of potting mixes and fertilisers. It's irrelevant what type, it (the legionella bacteria) could have been in any of them."

Hutchings said he had heard of legionnaires' disease, but associated it with water towers and air conditioners.

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"I looked up the warning on the front of one product and it said 'more details on the back', I just read that there were microorganisms inside and I thought, well, of course there are microorganisms in the soil," Hutchings said.

"I didn't read the more details on the back. I didn't realise it was legionnaires'. It was only afterwards that I looked in more detail and they do specify it on the packets. They've done the right thing and put it on the packets, but we didn't see it.

"Sharon's problem was that she left it too long to see a doctor and therefore she wasn't diagnosed straight away.

"If she had gone in when we first begged her to, and her boss begged her to, she would have gone in with flu symptoms and it would have been diagnosed quickly. She wouldn't have got the wrong antibiotics and she would have almost certainly lived, she was young and healthy.

"Even if she had gone in a day earlier than she did, she wouldn't have been in so much pain and there may have been greater emphasis on the flu symptoms and they could have diagnosed it."

There was a frightening lack of awareness about the risk of contracting Legionnaire's disease from potting mix, Hutchings said, but simple solutions could save lives.

"We could be talking about hundreds of deaths a year in Australia if you put it all together," he said.

"I'd like to see flat surgical masks attached to the outside of potting mix bags.

"The fact that the mask is supplied will help people realise the dangers and use that mask. We might not be able to convince everyone to use it, but even if half of them did it could make a huge difference.

"Even if they were sold near the potting mix, instead of the packs just recommending they be used, it would help.

"Some supermarkets sell the dust masks but some don't and they're not always near each other (at the point of sale).

"If the government made it law that they were sold together, it would help draw people's attention to the need to wear a mask when using potting mix."

While still very much in mourning for his daughter, Hutchings was determined to get his message out there so her death will not be in vain.

"It has really affected the family - no one's been coping well," Hutchings said.

"Sharon's daughter was getting married in April, but her wedding has been deferred until next year now.

"Everything's just fallen apart so badly. We love Collie but we're now questioning whether we should stay."

Hutchings said he was horrified when he recently watched a television lifestyle programme where children were potting plants without protective gear.

"It's too late to help Sharon, but hopefully we can help someone else," Hutchings said.

"If reading her story saves one life, telling it will have been worth it."

- WA Today

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