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Thursday, 16 March 1961


Mr GRIFFITHS (Shortland) .- I support the appeal made by the honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James) in regard to the case of one of his constituents, Mrs. Betts. I appeal to the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron), who is at the table, to place the matter before the Minister for Repatriation (Mr. Osborne) and ask him to do something about it urgently. Recently, I was approached by several people in the Wallsend area to call and see Mrs. Betts. It was not until the Reverend Father Hornery, the local parish priest, saw me that I decided to go out, because the address was not in my electorate, although it used to be a part of Shortland.

This is probably the most distressing case I have seen in my lifetime. The woman was lying in bed, hopelessly helpless, and, as stated by the honorable member for Hunter, her nine-year-old daughter had to give her injections every now and again. Her bedroom was like a chemist's shop. The woman herself complained that she had to meet pharmaceutical expenses, or otherwise she would die. She has been under the care of numerous doctors for years and was in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital clinic for certain diseases. As this lady told this story to me, and later to the honorable member for Hunter and me together, it could be seen that she was under great stress. There is no doubt that she may die in the not-far-distant future. Although she is only 36 years of age, she is reduced to a wreck. She told us that it is costing her between £6 and £7 a week for pharmaceutical expenses alone. The doctor visits her from three to five times a week and she has to meet doctor's expenses amounting to possibly £3 a week. The treatment received in the months that she spent in hospital has not yet been paid for. She has two daughters going to school and it is impossible for her to meet their education expenses.

When we went into the room, the blinds were drawn because her eyes are affected by the disease, dermatomyositis, for which she has been treated with the newest and rarest drugs. Cortisone in huge doses has been administered to her. She is virtually a guinea-pig of humanity, yet no authority is trying to assist her. I believe that she is the responsibility of the Repatriation Department, if ever any one was the responsibility of that department. From what I have seen, there appear to be two files on the case. She receives correspondence both in her married name and in her single name. I suggest that the Repatriation Department has a responsibility to see that that sort of thing ceases forthwith.

As Dorothy Gwen Fraser, she enlisted in September, 1943, in the Women's Australian Auxiliary Air Force, at the age of eighteen years, and was stationed at Sale, Victoria. During her period of service she suffered two disabilities, as stated by the honorable member for Hunter. She had the top of one thumb amputated in a bread machine and she spilled caustic soda on her left leg. In February, 1945, she was discharged medically unifit, after about seventeen months' service. She spent the greater part of that time in hospitals at Sale and Heidelberg, where she underwent extensive skin graft operations for the caustic soda burns.

To my mind, there can be no doubt that Mrs. Betts received very poor treatment at the outset for the caustic soda burns. I believe that her condition to-day is due to the failure of the medical authorities at Sale to apply the correct treatment for caustic soda burns at the time when the accident occurred. I think the great destructive properties of sodium potash, or caustic soda, are well known to honorable members.

When Mrs. Betts was burnt she changed her clothes and reported the accident to the medical officer. I understand that the only treatment given was the application of acriflavine, an antiseptic liniment, and a bandage. Nothing more was done until the patient complained of the state of her leg. It was then seen that the skin was turning black. Apparently at that stage it was too late to do anything but await developments. The burns erupted and continued to get worse. Then followed a long period of hospitalization, during which several skin grafts took place, until finally the wounds healed over. Mrs. Betts was discharged from the service of the Air

Force as medically unfit and ever since then, she has suffered in one way or another with her legs. I understand that, following her discharge, Mrs. Betts applied for a war pension and her application was rejected by the Repatriation Board. On appeal, she was granted a 100 per cent. pension, which she enjoyed for the best part of twelve months only. Then, without notice, and without her having been subjected to a medical examination, her pension was cut back to 20 per cent. This is. I think, a typical example of the attitude of the Repatriation Commission towards many cases. It is certainly an example of the arbitrary manner in which cases are dealt with by the department.

It is my opinion that Mrs. Betts's pension was cut to almost nothing because she had married. If that was the reason, then I suggest that some one should be caned for it. As I understand the position, Mrs. Betts was keeping company with her husband long before she enlisted. In fact, both she and her husband had enlisted in the Services and the marriage was put off until after they had been discharged.

What amazes me is that although Mrs. Betts lost the top of her thumb while on service, that injury was not accepted for repatriation purposes until 1950, when she was paid a small pension for it. Mrs. Betts was of the opinion that the 20 per cent. pension she was being paid was for the loss of the top of her thumb, but it appears now that it was for the injury to her leg. The commission claims that her pension was increased to 30 per cent. or 35 per cent. at one stage. Mrs. Betts denies that it was ever increased beyond 20 per cent.

I am told that my colleague's representations are being considered by the Minister, but this matter is very urgent. This exservicewoman will die if something is not done quickly to relieve her of the worry caused by the colossal expense she is being called upon to meet week by week, or if something is not done to ensure that she is given the proper care and medical attention which only a hospital such as Concord can provide. I ask the Minister to do something about this matter quickly.

Dermatomyositis is a disease of the skin and muscles. I understand that its origin is hard to determine. Very little is said about it in medical dictionaries. Some doctors subscribe to the view that it could be the result of the caustic soda burns which ate so deeply into the flesh of Mrs. Betts's leg, on which skin grafts were made. So far as my knowledge goes, no doctor has yet offered an opinion as to a definite cause of the complaint. 1 understand that the disease belongs to the dermatitis group and, according to some medical dictionaries, dermatomyositis is an infectious inflammation of both skin and muscles, accompanied by edema, or swelling, fever and general depression. I suggest that because dermatitis is a disease of the skin which belongs to a group of diseases that can be caused by burns and scalds, revealing inflammation, swelling, intense pain and high temperatures, it is reasonable to say that the disease of dermatomyositis from which Mrs. Betts is suffering is war-caused and the result of the severe burns she suffered while a member of the Services. I appeal to the Minister to do something immediately to help this unfortunate woman.

Question resolved in the affirmative.







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