The claim says Marlene’s family members have suffered significantly, including developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety after witnessing her death.
The family say they are haunted by her anguished final months and their repeated, failed attempts to get help for the young woman as her mental health disintegrated.
“We tried and tried to get services in place for her, but no one was willing to listen to us.”
Over a two-year period Marlene went to a hospital emergency department – often by ambulance and with police intervention – at least eight times while expressing suicidal thoughts and showing signs of significant alcohol abuse, the claim says.
On four other occasions, Marlene or a family member urgently sought help from one of the services.
“When she became unwell, it was so hard to watch her suffer,” her mother said in a statement. “We tried and tried to get services in place for her, but no one was willing to listen to us. No one was willing to help. She didn’t believe anyone would help her and she was right.”
Tereza Sako says she wouldn’t wish what had happened to Marlene and her family upon anyone. “It is just not something that you can move on from,” she says. “We are all haunted by it. It has destroyed our family and we are broken.”
Maurice Blackburn medical negligence lawyer Shari Liby, who is acting for the family, says this case is particularly tragic because Marlene and her family asked for help so many times.
“The numerous presentations to Northern Hospital, where Marlene was simply sent home, reflects so many missed opportunities to give her the treatment she needed and deserved,” Ms Liby said.
In February 2014, Marlene went to the emergency department at the Northern Hospital, after taking six paracetamol tablets. She said she felt depressed and was thinking about suicide. She was told to see her general practitioner and discharged, the claim says.
Five months later she was back with abdominal pain, and liver function tests indicated alcohol abuse. She returned on two more occasions after a collapse and suspected alcohol withdrawal seizures.
‘I miss my beautiful girl so much and just wish someone had taken to the time to look and listen.’
The following year, Marlene’s sister rang NorthWestern Mental Health and said Marlene had talked about suicide and revealed she had been sexually abused. Marlene was drinking three to four bottles of vodka a day and her family wanted her to be admitted to hospital, the statement of claim says.
Later that night, Marlene experienced seizures and was taken to the Northern Hospital by ambulance. Her escalating alcohol abuse was noted, as was the fact her parents were away and her siblings were unable to cope.
The legal claim alleges the hospital should have recognised the relationship between Marlene’s alcohol abuse, her mental state and the increased risk of self-harm. Marlene should have been admitted and referred for a psychiatric assessment, says the claim. Instead, she was discharged.
More emergency admissions followed, related to intoxication, seizures, suicidal behaviour, threats of self-harm and increasing aggression. The statement of claim lists a number of occasions where Marlene’s family allege the hospital failed in its duty of care.
During one emergency admission her sister asked to be notified when Marlene was discharged, but was not told. Marlene walked 14 kilometres home. She arrived hours later, her feet cut and bloodied.
On November 30, 2015 Marlene’s sister called triple zero twice, saying Marlene was drunk and threatening to kill herself.
On both occasions the operator should have designated the incident as a “priority 1” and promptly dispatched police, the claim alleges – a category intended to treat serious, life-threatening cases. Instead, she was listed as “priority 2,” for an acute but non-time critical response. No police unit was dispatched.
Shortly afterwards, Marlene went into the backyard of her home and set herself on fire. Her family could not douse the flames. Marlene was taken to The Alfred hospital where she later died.
Marlene was an avid cinema-goer and book lover who was talkative, friendly and “very very” caring, used to take her siblings to the movies on Sundays and relished her nursing studies and work with the elderly.
“Marlene was such a beautiful girl,” says her mother. “I miss my beautiful girl so much and just wish someone had taken the time to look and listen.”
Last November, the royal commission into Victoria’s mental health system found years of chronic under-investment in the sector had led to a system that “catastrophically failed to live up to expectations”.
The commissioners’ interim report made nine recommendations – including 170 new mental health beds and a centre of excellence – and called for an overhaul of the mental health sector.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it was unable to comment on the Sakos’ legal claim while the matter was before the court.
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Social Affairs Editor at The Age.