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Australia Grieving Gold Coast couple's warning to other parents about lethal button batteries after death of 3yo Brittney

02:15  23 october  2020
02:15  23 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a man sitting on a couch: Lorraine and David Conway's daughter Brittney died in July this year after swallowing a button battery. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney) © Provided by ABC Health Lorraine and David Conway's daughter Brittney died in July this year after swallowing a button battery. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

A three-year-old girl with "a thousand sparkles in her eyes" has become the third child to die in Australia since 2013 after swallowing a button battery.

Lorraine and David Conway have spoken publicly for the first time about the death of their youngest child Brittney.

"She just had a beautiful nature … just a really content and happy little girl," Mrs Conway said.

"She had a thousand sparkles in her eyes."

Brittney died on July 28 in the Queensland Children's Hospital, three weeks after she swallowed a battery and enduring significant medical procedures to save her life.

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Her Gold Coast parents hoped that urgent government changes would be made to regulate the use of button batteries and make them inaccessible to small children.

The small, shiny batteries are often used in common household items including TV or key remotes, scales and toys and once swallowed, they start to burn internally causing life-long injuries or death.

Each week nationally, 20 children go to hospital suspected of swallowing a button battery.

Food poisoning initially blamed

Not suspecting her daughter could have swallowed a button battery, Mrs Conway said she knew something was wrong with her youngest child on the afternoon of July 6.

"I first noticed when she came to me and said, 'Mummy, my throat is sore', and then she vomited," Mrs Conway said.

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"I had just given her a [lollipop] and I thought she had eaten too big of a chunk and swallowed it.

"That's when I sat her on the lounge and monitored her and then she vomited another two times, that's when I called the house call doctor.

"He actually just thought it was food poisoning."

After a play date the following day, Brittney vomited in the car after eating solid food, had a sudden, unexplained nose bleed and complained of a terrible pain in her chest.

"She put her hands straight on her chest and she bent over, the extraordinary pain in her voice when she said, 'Mummy, Mummy, my boobies are hurting'," Mrs Conway said.

No X-ray performed

After taking Brittney to the Robina Hospital, Mrs Conway said the doctor's diagnosis was that her daughter probably had a virus.

"I demonstrated how she was pressing on her chest, the way she was bending over, the whole lot and I said to him, "Can we get an X-ray?"

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"And he just said, 'We will monitor her' but no chest X-ray was ever done.

"He didn't physically examine her at all."

Queensland Health declined to comment on the specifics of the case as the matter is under review.

After monitoring Brittney for up to four hours, Mrs Conway said her child was discharged from hospital and she was told the virus might last three to five days, but on the way home in the car the little girl again vomited after eating.

"The only time she demonstrated any agony was if she ate solid food," Mrs Conway said.

With Brittney struggling to eat over the next couple of days, her mother again sought the advice of a Gold Coast GP four days after her daughter first showed symptoms of being unwell.

"He checked her tummy, said it was viral," she said.

"I'm not a doctor in any way, I'm only a mum, but I just knew something wasn't right with her."

'It burnt through her oesophagus'

Nine days after first coming to her mother with a sore throat, Mrs Conway said she was becoming very concerned that her daughter barely wanted to eat.

Having put her to bed for the night, she checked on her daughter after hearing her cough.

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"Brittney was lying in a pool of blood, unconscious," she said.

Rushed by ambulance to the Gold Coast University Hospital and X-rayed immediately, Mrs Conway finally learned what was wrong with her daughter.

"That's when I was told that she had a button battery ingested in her chest area," she said.

"It had burnt through her oesophagus, into her aorta."

Never suspecting that it was a button battery that was causing her daughter to be so unwell, Mrs Conway said finally her symptoms now made sense.

"I knew obviously they're a small item to keep them away from children, but I didn't know how deadly dangerous they are," she said.

After enduring nine hours of surgery to remove the battery and stabilise the little girl, Brittney was transferred to the Queensland Children's Hospital where she underwent further surgery, but eight days later died from her injuries.

'No-one is listening'

Sadly, Brittney's story is all too familiar to Noosa's Andrea Shoesmith, whose daughter, Summer Steer, was in 2013 the first child to die in Australia from swallowing a button battery.

In 2015 Melbourne's Isabella Rees aged 14 months also died from swallowing one of the batteries.

Ms Shoesmith said she was devastated to learn of Brittney Conway's death.

"I've tried to raise so much awareness and then two more deaths, I mean, come on let's get this ball rolling," she said.

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"People need to listen, the government needs to listen and have something happen

"It's been seven years of fighting and it's not that it's for nothing, but no-one's listening, no legislation has been passed. We've been to Canberra and still nothing."

Emergency paediatrician Ruth Barker is the director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit and has previously told the ABC that "it only took two seconds for a child to pick up a battery and swallow it".

"If the battery gets stuck, it breaks down water in the body to produce a chemical that causes severe internal burns," she said.

"The symptoms are very non-specific, sometimes it can be a partial refusal of food, drooling a bit more than usual and a fever."

Authorities back mandatory regulation

Despite two coronial inquests and subsequent recommendations for the batteries to be made safer, there is still no mandatory regulation in Australia.

Kidsafe chief executive Susan Teerds said the regulation of button batteries was critical.

"For 40 years companies have been dumping these, what I call landmines, into our homes and they've known they're problematic," Ms Teerds said.

She said anyone who suspects a child has swallowed a battery — whether it is fully charged or flat — should call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 or triple-0.

"You can go directly to an emergency department if you know your child has swallowed a button battery and ask for an X-ray."

Deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Delia Rickard said the consumer body had "done a lot of things" in the seven years since Summer Steer's death to address safety issues around button batteries but there was still work to be done.

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"We really need a mandatory standard to deal with these batteries," Ms Rickard said.

"We will be looking at things like secure battery compartments, compliance testing, child-resistant packaging for the batteries when they're being sold and a range of warning and information.

"It's incredibly complex … it would cover all products that come into Australia, including those sold online."

She said the ACCC hoped to submit its recommendation for mandatory regulation to Federal Minister Michael Sukkar by the end of the year and if accepted, Australia would be the first country in the world to have such a regulation in place.

Review underway

Queensland Health has advised it is carrying out a review of Brittney's death and extends "sincere condolences" to her family and friends.

"Brittney's death was tragic and we welcome her family's input in the Independent Patient Safety review," it said in a statement.

"As professionals who dedicate their lives to caring for others, the staff who treated Brittney are also deeply saddened by her passing.

"Gold Coast Health will fully embrace any recommendations from the review."

Brittney's death has also been reported to the Coroners Court of Queensland where Brisbane coroner Don MacKenzie is awaiting the report from the pathologist and other medical information to inform his investigation.

A court spokesperson said a decision as to whether to proceed to inquest cannot be determined until all reports and material have been received and considered by the coroner.

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