A healthy teenage boy died while on a school trip to Europe after teachers and doctors wrote off his illness as mostly homesickness – despite him frequently vomiting into bins on the street.
Timothy Fehring, 15, a year nine student at Blackburn High School in Melbourne, died six days into the trip on June 28, 2019.
Timothy developed an infection in his blood and lungs that unknowingly turned into sepsis, which led to his body shutting down.
In the short time he was in Europe he lost five kilograms, threw up repeatedly, couldn’t keep food down, was lethargic and struggled to walk.
He had texted his parents, who live in Ringwood North in the city’s north east, telling them he wanted to come home because he felt so unwell.
Tim was eventually taken to see a doctor at a German hospital but his symptoms were put down to a combination of gastro, homesickness and constipation.
Timothy Fehring, 15, a Year 9 student at Blackburn High School, died of natural causes just days into the trip on June 28, 2019
The group had arrived in Europe on June 23 – but just six days later, Tim was dead.
Coroner Simon McGregor found that staff – two teachers, including the assistant principal and business manager – had made the ‘wrong judgment’ in treating Tim, one of 17 students on the trip.
Tim’s mother Barbara Fehring said her son was a happy and healthy child who couldn’t wait to go on the trip, but added nobody listened to him when he tried to tell him how unwell he was.
‘The people in charge thought he was homesick but he wasn’t. He couldn’t wait to go away, but he didn’t like making a fuss,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
‘He was a very fit, healthy and energetic kid who was always happy and always wanted to make those around him happy.’
The first day – Tim falls ill on June 23, immediately after arriving
The coroner’s report showed that the 15-year-old was vomiting on the first day the group arrived in Berlin. He was sick in a street bin while the group went out for a walk.
One of the teachers thought his stomach was upset from the spicy food on the plane.
On the second day Tim woke up with stomach cramps and after not eating he vomited at lunchtime, and again at dinner.
Teachers initially thought he was suffering the effects of jetlag, different food, the heat, and a change in climate.
They had informed his mother he was feeling sick but suspected it was due to being homesick, the coroner’s report said.
On the third day Tim was feeling even worse and started to feel like he wanted to go home.
He was taken to a chemist and given medication to help his stomach but he still had no appetite and didn’t eat any dinner.
In the short time Tim (pictured with his older sister at the airport before the trip) was in Europe he lost weight, had vomited repeatedly, was unable to keep food down, was lethargic and struggled to walk around. He died six days after the group arrived
Day four, June 26: Tim is taken to hospital after begging mum to bring him home
On June 26, Tim woke up early and texted his mother asking her to bring him home.
‘He expressed dissatisfaction about how he was being treated and disbelieved about his sickness,’ the coroner’s report said.
His mother Barbara spoke to one of the teachers and said Tim needed to see a doctor.
But before he was taken to the Munich Children’s Hospital, the group went on a walking tour.
Tim did parts of the tour but had to go sit down in the shade, and was ‘exhausted, visibly pale and had noticeably lost weight’, the coroner’s report said.
That afternoon he was seen by a doctor and ‘thoroughly examined’, including having a urine sample taken and tests for dehydration.
‘(One of the teachers) mentioned to the doctor that Tim was homesick, and the doctor confirmed that his symptoms could be connected to this,’ the coroner’s report said.
Tim was at the hospital for between four and six hours, and the doctor said constipation and homesickness was likely the reason for his vomiting.
He was told to drink water and eat fruit and that by the next afternoon he would start to feel better, the report said.
Coroner Simon McGregor said staff had made the ‘wrong judgement’ in treating Tim (pictured with his sister and dad) on the trip
June 27, day five: Tim begs to go to hospital again
The following day the group travelled to Austria and went on another walking tour.
‘Tim walked around carrying a ‘vomit bag’ although he asked not to go at all,’ the coroner’s report said.
‘He had not improved and was walking slowly and looked puffed out and tired. He was pale and had black circles under his eyes.
‘Tim had told the staff that he wanted to go to hospital, but staff considered that he was trying to avoid doing the planned activities such as the afternoon’s walking tour.’
Ms Fehring said she couldn’t understand why Tim wasn’t taken to hospital on June 27, despite telling the teachers he was feeling so terrible.
‘Basically he didn’t have a voice, no one listened to him,’ she said.
Teachers initially thought Tim (pictured with his father) was suffering the effects of jetlag, different food, the heat, and a change in climate
‘The teachers didn’t know him, they never taught him so they didn’t know that Tim didn’t put things on.’
She said she and her family were ‘appalled’ when they learnt he wasn’t taken to hospital despite asking to be.
‘This child was sick all week, he had dark rings under his eyes, he lost 5kg, why weren’t they aware of all that?’ Ms Fehring said.
On the evening of June 27, staff decided Tim would fly home alone as his condition had not improved.
JUNE 28: TIM’S BODY SHUTS DOWN
The next day, on June 28, Tim was taken to get a doctor’s certificate to confirm he was able to travel.
While he was there, Tim was not examined or given any tests and the doctor was told to prescribe him anxiety medication at the request of one of the teachers, the coroner’s report said.
The doctor also deemed Tim fit to travel. (Ms Fehring said he was not).
While the teacher was paying for the appointment, Tim walked out of the doctor’s office into the hallway, complaining it was ‘hot and stuffy’ but moments later was found unresponsive on the floor.
Vomit was splattered all over his clothes and his nose was bleeding, the report said.
A text message from one teacher to the other included in the coroner’s report read: ‘I need medical people.
‘He has vomited all over himself. Blood is coming out of his nose and I cannot wake him. He is in a trance.’
On the evening of June 27, staff decided Tim would fly home alone as his condition had not improved
Tim was given CPR before he was rushed to the Vienna Centre for Social Medicine, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit in an ambulance.
His pupils were at ‘maximum dilation’ at the hospital and a CT scan found severe swelling to the brain, the report said.
Ms Fehring understands Tim had gone into sepsis and when he collapsed onto the floor he went into cardiac arrest.
Tim was unable to be saved. His mother had been on a flight back to Melbourne at the time and was only informed about her son’s death by close friends who’d gone to meet her at the airport when she landed.
Autopsies showed Tim had a highly acute infection in his blood and lungs which may have led to heart failure.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, staff made the wrong judgement call that Tim’s complaints were not sufficiently serious to justify him being excused from the afternoon walking tour,’ Coroner McGregor said.
He added though that there was no proof this amounted to any ‘prevention opportunity’, given staff had complied with the previous medical advice received.
The staff on the trip were trained in first aid, but the coroner said they should have ‘sought, and then followed’ the medical advice for Tim, ‘rather than restricting the medical advice sought to that of management of travel anxiety’.
He recommended the Department of Education and Training increase the staff to student ratio on overseas trips and that they revisit excursion policies. The department has accepted both recommendations.
Tim’s family push for change
Ms Fehring said she is hoping changes will be made to future school excursions by the education department.
She is supportive of the teacher to student ratio being increased and has suggested a registered nurse be present on every trip.
‘For Tim to have left us so happy and excited to go away and within a matter of days deteriorate so fast, it astounds us,’ she said.
‘We are not wanting this ever to happen to any other child or for any family to go through what we have and are still going through.’
Tim’s mother said he was a happy and healthy boy who loved to make those around him happy
Ms Fehring also said it’s important that parents are able to FaceTime their children, saying if she could have seen him she would have realised how serious it was.
‘We were just in this fog of not knowing, the teachers were downplaying it and so was Tim,’ she said.
Ms Fehring, her husband and her daughter are still struggling with the loss of Tim.
‘Everyday is still extremely difficult,’ she said, adding she has been unable to work since his death.
‘We miss him everyday and when we do family activities there’s a spare chair for Tim.
‘It feels like our futures have been taken off all three of us, we’ve all been left broken.’
Ms Fehring also thanked her local community who have honoured Tim each year on the anniversary of his death.
‘Everyone that ever met him, he left a long lasting impression on,’ she said.