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Health system change essential to help healing after Indigenous man's death

Dechlan Brennan -

When Ricky Hampson Jr walked into Dubbo hospital in August 2021, he was in pain.

Despite a self-confessed fear of hospitals, he went to the emergency room with "ten out of ten" pain, and a "popping" sound in his stomach.

Less than two days later, having been misdiagnosed with a drug-induced syndrome, he died on his friend's couch from two perforated duodenal ulcers.

Dougie, as he was known to his family, was a father of eight, who loved to sing to his children in the car. A slideshow shown to the inquest examining his death showed him as a smiling child, wearing spotted pyjamas.

His father, Rick Hampson Snr, said his son was a loud, kind and happy man.

"But as strong and brave as he was and as warm and caring as he was and as loud as he could be, when he needed help no one heard him," Mr Hampson Snr said on Friday.

"He was the life of the party; he was the light of every celebration. Now that light is gone, and we are left in the darkness."

The final image on the slideshow was a CCTV still from Dubbo hospital, showing the 36-year-old Kamilaroi-Dunghutti man clutching a water bottle.

The family of Dougie Hampson takes part in a smoking ceremony before the opening of the inquest on Monday (Image: ABC/Zaarkacha Marlan)

Emergency doctor Sokol Nushaj has told the inquest "cognitive bias" led him to misdiagnose Mr Hampson Jr with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), a drug-related syndrome seen in long-term cannabis users.

The doctor, who was overseeing a busy emergency during the Covid-19 pandemic, told the inquest he recognised the symptoms of agitation and pain when he first saw Mr Hampson Jr being wheeled into an emergency bed.

Dr Nushaj said he closed his mind off to any other diagnosis, noting Mr Hampson Jr's use of cannabis - as well as his blood tests - influenced his decision. It was, in his own words, a mistake.

He acknowledged Mr Hampson Jr failed to display the main CHS symptoms of vomiting and nausea. However, he was given droperidol and morphine - the former not recorded on any document in the hospital.

He was not given a single scan to pinpoint why he was experiencing an acute pain that would cause him to scream out in agony at one point during the evening.

A medical expert told the inquest that with a CT scan and resulting surgery, Mr Hampson Jr could have been expected to "survive…and live a normal life."

Counsel assisting the coroner, Simeon Beckett SC, submitted to the inquest the treatment of Mr Hampson Jr was "inadequate and below the peer-professional standard".

"It is very likely Dougie's death from the two duodenal ulcers could have been avoided if emergency staff on duty on August 14 had properly investigated his illness and referred him to a surgeon".

Deputy State Coroner Erin Kennedy has been asked to consider whether racism and bias played a role in Mr Hampson Jr's treatment at Dubbo hospital.

In his submission, Stuart Kettle, the barrister representing the Western NSW Local Health District, told the inquest the inadequate treatment was the result of several "omissions" rather than any bias.

"The evidence does not support a finding that the omissions by those who provided the medical (care) ... can be attributed to his being an Aboriginal man," Mr Kettle said.

He submitted that the health district has "been so committed for many years" when it came to implementing changes in their healthcare practices towards Indigenous people.

Outside the court, Mr Hampson Snr said the healthcare system needed to change.

"As an Aboriginal man, I already knew that our people get substandard health care and treatment," he said, flanked by two of his daughters.

"But now I understand the systemic failures in our healthcare system that are killing Aboriginal people, like our son Dougie."

The family have called for a myriad of changes, including hospital staff being trained on culturally safe care, and the entire district collecting data on racist incidents to get a clear picture of how widespread a problem racism might be.

"The healthcare authorities need to listen to First Nations people," Mr Hampson Snr said.

"Not blowing off our concerns, actually listening and taking our concerns seriously, and then putting our recommendations into practice."

The family also want a memorial to Mr Hampson Jr at Dubbo hospital to ensure he is always remembered.

"These recommendations need to be seriously enforced because I truly hope that no other Aboriginal family has to go through what we've been through," Rick Hampson Snr. said.

"Getting these reforms won't bring Dougie back. Nothing will do that.

"His legacy will live on if First Nations people finally get the quality and culturally safe health care we deserve."

The inquest ended on Friday and the coroner will hand down the findings and recommendations at a later date.

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