Two teens feared they could die at any moment after a
pathologist misdiagnosed the cause of their father's sudden
death - a mistake which went uncorrected for almost five
Fifteen-year-old Chris Rickett, and his sister Alexandra, 17,
lost their father Paul to sudden heart failure last April
last year. With their mum, Bev, they battled to resuscitate
the 46-year-old, a project manager for Zespri, but he died in
his wife's arms at their rural Bay of Plenty home.
Paul Rickett's unexpected death started a horror year for his
As a result, chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean this week
promised changes to prevent other families suffering the same
Twelve hours after Rickett died, a Ministry of Justice
employee phoned Bev Rickett and told her Pathlab Waikato
pathologist Dr Ian Beer had ruled the interim cause of her
husband's death was arrhythmogenic right ventricular
Not knowing what the diagnosis meant, Rickett and other
family members searched the internet and consulted GPs. They
discovered ARVD is incurable and can kill sufferers without
warning at a young age - and were terrified, she said.
Her two children had a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the
condition, and at least 14 extended family members were also
"Amid our devastating loss, our family was now in a complete
state of panic. I spiralled into depression. I'd lost my life
partner one week before our 21st wedding anniversary, and I
was told 'your kids are going to die'."
She did not go back to Coronial Services because there was no
suggestion the diagnosis could be wrong.
Chris and Alexandra were referred by the family doctor to a
cardiologist, but had to wait four months for an appointment.
"The cardiologist said 'your children are likely to die in
their early 20s' ... they were sitting NCEA, had watched
their dad die and they're basically told they're dying."
But the cardiologist also said ARVD was so rare the cause of
death should be checked again. It was only then the family
discovered the final cause-of-death finding was giant cell
myocarditis, a non-genetic cause of heart failure.
"My feet just went from under me. I cried for three days,"
Beer - who made headlines in 2012 when he admitted mistakenly
diagnosing a woman with breast cancer - said he was "terribly
sorry" and wished Rickett had called him.
"I would've been able to put them out of their misery
Interim cause-of-death findings were based on a "naked eye"
examination, and Paul Rickett looked like a "textbook case"
of ARVD, which Beer said he had never seen in his 30-year
Tissue samples examined later revealed the mistaken
Judge MacLean said it was unusual for a definitive
cause-of-death in an interim finding to be changed.
Most causes of death with genetic implications took time to
identify, and support was made available to affected
families. He would ensure the support was extended to
families who found out earlier.
Mistakes had been made, Judge MacLean said.
"I really regret it. We're going to try to make sure it
doesn't happen again."
Rickett has hired a lawyer and will complain to the Health
and Disability Commissioner, but is looking forward to when
the family can again focus on the person they lost.
"This has taken away our ability to grieve for the most
wonderful man in the world."
- By Cherie Howie of the Herald on Sunday