Tim Griffin, the Austin Hospital nurse who blew the whistle about what he believed was medical negligence, has died.
Griffin struggled for years to compel the Melbourne hospital to admit what he believed was a serious error in its treatment of a patient in 2014.
The Austin has always rejected his claims.
Nursing a career change
Griffin grew up in the 1980s in Melbourne’s leafy outer east as one of four boys.
He left school in 1995 and became a horticulturalist for a few years. But a stint in hospital following an accident opened his eyes to the possibility of becoming a nurse.
In 2005, he got a job as a spinal technician — equivalent to an orderly — at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, Victoria’s only spinal hospital and one of the leading neurological centres in the country.
He enrolled in nursing and started working in the spinal ward.
He loved the work.
Among the close-knit group of nurses on the ward, some became lifelong friends.
Music was his passion. He and his mates and girlfriends — of whom there were more than a few through his 20s and 30s — relished Melbourne’s live music scene.
He was widely liked, someone who was both fun and funny.
His friends considered him a person of great integrity, someone who would not walk past a wrong he believed had taken place.
He also connected deeply with many of his patients, and they with him.
Part of his legacy are those patients he cared for, many of them quadriplegics, some of whom he maintained contact with long after they were discharged.
In 2014, Griffin’s life changed.
The patient that changed everything
In July that year, Griffin admitted Rory Wilson, who had suffered a severe spinal injury in a traffic accident.
Over the next several days, Griffin believed Wilson displayed clear signs of an imminent stroke. Griffin had reported some of those signs and tried to get Wilson the treatment he thought he needed, but his efforts were dismissed.
After nine days in hospital, Wilson suffered a massive stroke which left him with permanent damage.
Even though he was initially instructed not to, Griffin filed an internal hospital report flagging possible medical negligence.
But the decision came back: there had been no error.
Griffin had said his manager started complaining about his performance, changed his duties and shouted at him in front of other staff.
He went on sick leave and was ultimately terminated.
But he could not forget the duty he believed the hospital owed Wilson: to tell him what had happened.
He complained to one authority after another, including the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency and the minister for health. All either accepted the hospital’s account or told him the matter was outside their jurisdiction.
Griffin succumbed to mental illness — the fate of so many whistleblowers.
He was a decent, careful man. He was also obsessed with Wilson’s case, something he readily admitted. But he said his obsession was based on the evidence.
All the while, as Wilson slowly pursued rehabilitation from his spinal and stroke injuries, he had no idea that a nurse he had never met — Wilson was unconscious the night Griffin admitted him — was persistently advocating on his behalf in the background.
Eventually, in exasperation, Griffin approached the ABC’s 7.30 program.
We approached Wilson’s legal team, and in 2019, patient and nurse finally met.
Wilson thanked Griffin profusely, saying his efforts were “phenomenal”.
But he also encouraged him to start to focus on his own recovery.
Aftermath of going public
In the wake of the story, the Austin admitted to Wilson and his wife Pauline that a complaint had been lodged internally about his care. That document had been redacted from the medical records the hospital had released to him previously.
Meanwhile, Griffin received a flood of messages of support.
He felt huge relief at having been able to tell Wilson what he knew.
Patient and nurse continued to see each other — something Griffin treasured profoundly.
But ultimately, going public did not give him the solace and vindication he hoped for. He continued to carry deep scars — depression, alcohol addiction and memory loss.
Publicly, the Austin Hospital maintained there was no failure in the care provided to Wilson, arguing that “earlier intervention would not have changed his medical outcomes as he was already receiving the appropriate blood-thinning medication that is used to reduce the risk of stroke”.
Griffin’s loyal friends, including some who had worked with him at the Austin, continued to support him, some ringing him almost daily.
In the end, despite seeking medical help, Griffin’s physical and mental deterioration seemed inexorable. “It seems there is no professional help there for me anymore,” he wrote to a friend.
Last week, he took his life on Melbourne’s outskirts.
Wilson was shocked and saddened by the news.
While the Austin still says it could not have prevented his stroke, Wilson credits Griffin’s actions with causing the hospital to thoroughly review his care and to talk to him honestly about whether he might have been treated differently.
Griffin is survived by two brothers.