Why did three-year-old Caitlin die from the flu? Family calls for inquest

Caitlin Cruz on seventh birthdays

Three-year-old Caitlin Cruz talks birthdays on a family video. She died from the flu less than 24 hours after she arrived at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead on Sunday October 23, 2016.

Her parents want the hospital to publicly explain what happened and how they will prevent another death like Caitlin’s from happening again.

Caitlin loved dancing and singing. The three-year-old also loved Peppa Pig, making friends, and drawing with chalk in her backyard. And she was never happier than when her little sister Chloe was born in early 2016.

"It was just one of the happiest times of our lives," said her mother, Marie Cruz. "We didn't know that eight months later we would lose Caitlin."

Caitlin Cruz died from the flu less than 24 hours after she arrived at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney on Sunday, October 23, 2016. An autopsy found Caitlin’s death was caused by influenza B, which had lead to swelling and fluid around her heart.

Caitlin Cruz, right, with her parents Mitch, Marie and younger sister Chloe.
Caitlin Cruz, right, with her parents Mitch, Marie and younger sister Chloe. Photo: Supplied

The Cruz family received an undisclosed settlement and an apology from the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network (SCHN) earlier this year in a civil case over Caitlin’s death, but now her parents want a coronial inquest to investigate exactly what went wrong.

"We left the hospital without a daughter, and we're asking why," her father, Mitch Cruz said.

'You're going to be OK'

Less than a week before she died, Caitlin and Chloe both came home from daycare with a fever. After perking up during the week, Caitlin felt sick again on Friday night.

Her father took her back to the doctor at midday on Saturday. She passed out and vomited in the waiting room. "About six or seven [doctors] dropped what they were doing ... to attend to Caitlin in the nursing bay," Mr Cruz said.

The doctors revived her, and called an ambulance. When the paramedics said they were taking her to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Mr Cruz felt relieved his daughter was getting quality care. "I looked at Caitlin and said, ‘Babe you're going to be OK’," he said.

The hospital staff didn't seem too worried. But a few hours later Caitlin collapsed again, and Mr Cruz ran to the nurses' desk with his daughter in his arms.


A "whole team" took about 30 minutes to recover her, he said.

An electrocardiogram (ECG) was ordered to see if there were any problems with her heart. But the ECG machine was not charged, so they had to wait about 5½ hours for the test.

Experts in the Cruz's civil case against the hospital said the ECG results "suggested there was quite likely a significant issue with Caitlin’s heart". But no action was taken for another 12 hours, when a paediatrician escalated her case and ordered a battery of tests about 8am on Sunday.

Caitlin, pictured with her baby sister Chloe.
Caitlin, pictured with her baby sister Chloe. Photo: Supplied

Caitlin was taken away by the intensive care team at 10am, and her parents were told to wait outside. But Caitlin’s condition was deteriorating rapidly. She collapsed 20 minutes later.

It all happened so quickly that Caitlin's parents were not told the hospital’s ICU team were fighting desperately to save her life until it was too late.

"One of the nurses comes out and she goes, ‘We've lost her, we've been trying for 40 minutes, but there's nothing else we can do’," Ms Cruz said.

It has been almost three years since Caitlin died.
It has been almost three years since Caitlin died.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

"In her final moments … we needed to tell her how much we loved her and how much we cared for her, and we weren't given that chance because it was all too late."

It’s a moment that haunts the Cruzes, almost three years after Caitlin died. How could their child die like that? And why did no one take her condition seriously until it was too late?

Mr Cruz, who called his daughter’s death in hospital "theft at the highest level", said he left the hospital with "a disgusting feeling that we didn't feel they did anything they could".

The memorial for Caitlin Cruz.
The memorial for Caitlin Cruz. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Caitlin’s death sparked an internal hospital review, and an SCHN spokeswoman said "system improvements" had been identified by the hospital, which have "now been implemented".

"SCHN expresses their deepest condolences to the Cruz family for the tragic loss of their daughter Caitlin," the spokeswoman said in a statement.

"We acknowledge and apologise the treatment provided to Caitlin was unsatisfactory."

However, the hospital network declined to detail what changes and improvements had been made, citing ongoing inquiries.

One of those inquiries was run by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC). That investigation was wrapped up in November last year, and the HCCC handed recommendations to the SCHN. Neither would reveal the recommendations.

Ms Driscoll, an associate at Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers, said the Crown Solicitor’s Office last year said a coronial inquest could not begin until the HCCC investigation finished. Last week, she was told the matter would come before the coroner later this year.

"It’s certainly a promising sign, because we haven’t heard anything for quite a while and [the Cruzes are] quite desperate for this to take place," she said.

However, Ms Driscoll added that was no guarantee a coronial inquest would be held.

Mr and Ms Cruz said they want a coronial inquest because the hospital’s review and the settlement did not give them answers about why Caitlin died. "I want to see it on paper: what have you done to actually stop this from happening again?" Ms Cruz said.

The couple also want answers for Caitlin. "We have this urge to fight, this urge to do something good for our daughter," Ms Cruz said.