More than 400 people gathered outside the coroner’s court in Melbourne on Tuesday in support of the family of Aboriginal woman Tanya Day, who died in custody in 2017.
The protest marched from parliament to the court in South Melbourne on Tuesday, after more than a thousand people occupied Spring Street in protest against the planned destruction of 800-year-old sacred trees on Djab Wurrung country to make way for the planned Western Highway.
Chants of “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” could be heard in court where Michael Stephenson, the executive director of clinical services for Ambulance Victoria, was giving evidence.
Stephenson apologised to Day’s family for the “disrespectful care” the 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman received by paramedics who were called to attend to her in the police cells on 5 December 2017. She died in St Vincent’s hospital on 22 December.
“I am deeply sorry for your loss and deeply sorry for our disrespectful care and treatment Tanya received that day,” Stephenson said. “It was a dark moment for our organisation. I’m sorry.”
Paramedics were called after police, who arrested and detained Day for public drunkenness when she was found asleep on a V/Line train and put her in the cells for four hours to sober up, noticed a bruise on her forehead that had not been there when she was put in custody.
The bruise indicated a significant haematoma on her left temporal lobe, sustained when she fell in the cells at 4.51pm and hit the right side of her head against the wall.
Paramedics later noticed a narrowing of her pupils that they mistakenly attributed to illicit drugs.
Day’s blood alcohol level was above 0.2 when tested at Bendigo hospital at 11pm that night. She did not have illicit drugs in her system.
Associate professor John Laidlaw, a neurosurgeon at Royal Melbourne hospital who was called as an expert medical witness, said that Day had a low platelet count and a reduced ability for her blood to coagulate due to her impaired liver function.
“Both those factors are predisposed to ongoing bleeding from very small vessels,” he said, adding that would also affect Day’s ability to recover after surgery.
Laidlaw said that a small haematoma would have formed within minutes of the 4.51pm impact, and this “would have expanded to form a significant haematoma over a very short period of time”, identified as “between 15 to 90 minutes”.
About 90 minutes after the fall, Laidlaw said, Day was showing clear signs of hemiparesis in the loss of function of the right side of her body. He said that is shown in CCTV footage from the cell after 6.39pm, after Day has fallen off the bed and appears unable to move her right arm.
Laidlaw said that Day would have been affected by dysphasia “very early” after sustaining the injury at 4.51pm, which he said would mean she would be unable to find the right words to respond to a question, and may not be able to understand what was said to her.
Police told the inquest last week that Day gave a “verbal response” by saying “yes” to a question in two welfare checks conducted after she was injured, at 7.35pm and 6.43pm, and was able to communicate with them when they went into the cell at 8.05pm.
Laidlaw told counsel for the Day family, Peter Morrissey SC, that given the nature of Day’s injury, it is unlikely that a permanent brain injury could have been averted by relieving pressure on her brain.
“If you’ve got bleeding inside the trauma of large enough to cause secondary damage to the brain, it usually does cause permanent injury,” he said. “In this case the primary haematoma itself is enough to cause permanent injury to the brain.”
The inquest continues.