'Parents trust your instincts': Michelle's plea after son Luca died of misdiagnosed appendicitis

COPY PHOTO of Luca Raso and Michelle Degenhardt. Michelle, of Soldiers Point, is pushing for a coronial inquest into the death of her son Luca Raso, 13. Luca died of peritonitis as a result of appendicitis which his GP failed to identify. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers MMH

COPY PHOTO of Luca Raso and Michelle Degenhardt. Michelle, of Soldiers Point, is pushing for a coronial inquest into the death of her son Luca Raso, 13. Luca died of peritonitis as a result of appendicitis which his GP failed to identify. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers MMH

Michelle Degenhardt of Soldiers Point is pushing for a coronial inquest into the death of her son Luca Raso, 13. Luca died of peritonitis as a result of appendicitis which his GP failed to identify. Pic shows Michelle holding a recent school portrait of Luca in her living room. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers MMH

Michelle Degenhardt of Soldiers Point is pushing for a coronial inquest into the death of her son Luca Raso, 13. Luca died of peritonitis as a result of appendicitis which his GP failed to identify. Pic shows Michelle holding a recent school portrait of Luca in her living room. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers MMH

He was 'Luca the Lionheart' to his friends. A happy 13-year-old boy who loved Adventure Time, Dragon Ball Z, and Star Wars.

How could this otherwise healthy, cheeky boy die a painful death after his appendicitis went undiagnosed for days, despite multiple visits and calls to a local GP?

It's the unimaginable reality Luca's mother Michelle Degenhardt is struggling to comprehend.

"He was one of those children with a vitality for life and a really strong sense of goodness," Ms Degenhardt said. "He had a good sense of social justice. He took good care of his friends."

The first sign something was wrong came on Monday, February 20, when Luca vomited after dinner.

He was still unwell and vomiting on Wednesday, so Michelle took him to see a GP at a medical clinic in the Port Stephens area.

The GP diagnosed viral gastroenteritis.

But when Luca was still unwell on Thursday, Michelle grew increasingly concerned.

"He kept saying 'mummy, my tummy hurts'. He looked so sick and he was very lethargic. He wasn't at all well," she said.

Michelle called the clinic again and made an appointment for Friday. The GP again diagnosed gastroenteritis. No pathology tests were ordered.

By Monday morning, February 27, his condition was dire. He started vomiting a brown syrupy liquid. His cheeks were sunken.

She called the medical centre and described Luca's condition. She was told that the earliest appointment available was in the afternoon.

"I couldn't wait. I said 'Luca, just go to the toilet and we'll get in the car and go to hospital," Michelle said.

But he was too weak to even walk to the toilet without his older brother's support.

Luca Raso with his mother Michelle Degenhardt

Luca Raso with his mother Michelle Degenhardt Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

"That's when I realised he was too sick to get down the stairs to the car so I called for an ambulance.

"While I was on the [Triple Zero call] I heard him fall at the toilet and start groaning."

Michelle found Luca on the floor, his eyes rolling back into his head and his teeth clenched.

Luca's heart had stopped. Michelle and Luca's brother started CPR.

"It was the most horrific thing," Michelle said.

Paramedics arrived, taking over CPR, and starting defibrillation and adrenalin. They rushed Luca to Tomaree Local Hospital, continuing CPR in the ambulance.

Hospital staff worked on Luca for about two hours, getting his heart going but only momentarily, Michelle said.

He was rushed to a larger tertiary hospital under police escort, but he died before he reached the second hospital.

"I just kept saying 'he's just got gastro, he's just got gastro. We live in Australia. People don't die from gastro," Michelle said.

"I didn't find out until the next day what it really was."

An autopsy report would later confirm Luca died of peritonitis complicated by ruptured gangrenous appendicitis.

"It was like I was suspended in time. I could hear people speaking but I couldn't take it in. I was hysterical. A mess. I couldn't understand what was happening," she said.

"As a mother, as soon as you get pregnant you'd do everything the doctor tells you to keep your child healthy.

"We keep all our faith and trust in them. But people just can't afford to take a doctor's word as gospel.

"My son died of a completely preventable condition."

Luca Raso was a happy, otherwise healthy 13-year-old loved Star Wars and Lego.

Luca Raso was a happy, otherwise healthy 13-year-old who loved Star Wars and Lego. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

Luca's case went before a local magistrate acting as an assistant coroner. The magistrate is investigating the matter further and will be back before the assistant coroner on 16 November.

Michelle wants the magistrate to recommend a formal coronial inquest to investigate the circumstances surrounding her son's death.

"That's the only thing I can do for my son now: find out how this could possibly have happened and to do something so it never happens again," she said

"I want someone to explain to me, where are the standards and policies and procedures to make sure this doesn't happen ever again?

"What kind of health system allows a perfectly healthy boy to die of something as preventable and curable of [complications from] appendicitis?

"How does something like this happen?"

Michelle had called the clinic five times between Wednesday and Saturday, and Luca had been taken to the clinic twice.

"I'm told like some neurotic mother that he has gastro.

"It wasn't gastro and now my boy is gone."

Michelle Degenhardt of Soldiers Point is pushing for a coronial inquest into the death of her son Luca Raso, 13. Luca died of peritonitis as a result of appendicitis which his GP failed to identify. Pic shows Michelle loking through an album of pictures of Luca, in the kitchen of her home. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers MMH

Michelle's warning to parents is to trust their instincts when it concerns the welfare of their children.

"As a mother, you just know. You just have a sixth sense that something's not right."

Medical negligence lawyer at Maurice Blackburn Libby Brookes said the firm was investigating whether there was a breach of duty of care by the GP who examined Luca during the two consultations.

"People shouldn't be dying of appendicitis, especially a child," Ms Brookes said.

Current practice standards stipulate GPs should take a detailed history, conduct a thorough examination and assess a patient's symptoms, and order pathology tests when appropriate.

"The question is whether or not a proper examination was performed in this case and whether Luca's symptoms should have led to more testing being done," Ms Brookes said.

"We want to make sure that any lessons that can be learned from this tragic death are fully explored.

"Parents need to know it's okay to seek a second opinion and to ask questions."

The common symptoms of appendicitis are abdominal pain, fever, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhoea.

The condition can be difficult to diagnose, according to state and commonwealth health resources. It is usually diagnosed by examining the patient and discussing symptoms. Blood and urine tests, and ultrasound can help make a diagnosis.

Because appendicitis is life-threatening, doctors will often err on the side of caution and recommend an appendectomy if there is not a definitive diagnosis. A negative appendectomy rate - removing a healthy appendix - of 10 to 20 per cent is deemed acceptable, considering the fatal risks of overlooking appendicitis.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) declined to comment on the standards and training in place for GPs and clinics while Luca's case was before the assistant coroner.

A study published on Monday found fewer than half of parents are completely confident in their GP's ability to care for their children.

The national survey of 2100 parents published in theJournal of Paediatrics and Child Healthfound just 44 per cent were completely confident their GP could handle "almost all general health issues" for their children.

The authors at the University of Melbourne concluded this diminished confidence in GPs could be contributing to overcrowding in emergency departments as parents sought medical care for children with lower-urgency conditions.

"People should never be discouraged from going to an emergency department," Ms Brookes said.

Luca had "a tremendous sense to see and feel people, and read them from an early age," Ms Degenhardt said. His perceptive nature renders the circumstances surrounding his death all the more tragic for his family.

"His name sums him up best, Ms Degenhardt says. "Luca means 'bringer of light'."

This story 'Parents trust your instincts': Michelle's plea after son Luca died of misdiagnosed appendicitis first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.