Wairarapa woman Gaylene Dunn died trying to rescue her cat from a tree

Gaylene Dunn's cat Tinker was stuck up a tree. It was a small, innocuous-looking lancewood, but the 55-year-old was a small woman, who would have had to stretch up to clamber into its forked base and reach for her pet.

That single step was to kill her two days later.

It was December 19, 2014, when Rozanne Martin, Dunn's neighbour in Carterton, Wairarapa, heard strange, garbled shouting coming from somewhere down the street.

She would later tell a coroner's inquest how she heard a banging noise about 5pm and hollered: "Cut it out", but the banging did not stop. Martin could hear someone calling: "Oi, oi, oi."

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After about an hour and a half, she went outside to investigate, and recognised Dunn's voice calling: "Rosie, Rosie". But she could not see her anywhere.

Martin squeezed through a gap in the fence and came upon her friend, stuck in the V at the base of the tree.

Dunn, who had Turner syndrome, which left her with a short stature and with advancing deafness, had been banging on an iron fence for hours, Martin realised.

She raised the alarm. A neighbour failed to budge Dunn, but a third person succeeded in releasing her foot before emergency workers arrived.

"She was good as gold," Martin recalled on Thursday. "She wasn't even going to go in the ambulance. She said that she felt better."

But two days later, she died in hospital from "crush injury syndrome",  according to findings released by coroner Tim Scott.

Martin remembered her friend as a quiet woman who loved her cat.

"She was very, very friendly, never said a bad word about anything. With her, she was always looking for the good."

Christine McDonald, a former CCS Disability Action co-ordinator, said Dunn, was a very bright and active person, who walked everywhere.

"The cat was her life. It really meant a great deal to her."

These days, Martin looks after Tinker. There were times, shortly after Dunn's death, when Tinker would sprint down the driveway thinking her late owner was about to arrive.

It was heartbreaking, Martin said. "After Gaylene got out of the tree, I said I'd give her a talking to when she got home. I'd tell her to say 'Help', not 'Oi oi oi'. I still think about her a lot. It was terrible."


An autopsy found the cause of death was rhabdomyolosis –muscle wasting caused by a crushing injury – such as happens in car accidents or even from strenuous exercise.

Christchurch emergency specialist Michael Ardagh, who treated victims of the February 2011 earthquake, said what happened to Dunn was encountered then.

It was why rescuers confronted with someone trapped by a heavy object are urged not to lift it off them rapidly: "Emergency medical staff have this terrible dilemma."

Once the crushing force is released, a rush of potassium may stream to the heart, causing it to fail.

Alternatively, myoglobin rushes to the kidneys, which can't process the protein, causing them to fail.

In Dunn's case, it was probably the length of time her foot was crushed, rather than the force, that mattered, Ardagh said.

Emergency workers arrived soon after neighbours raised the alarm. Dunn was conscious and alert, but her foot was bruised and she could not put weight on it.

Paramedics considered leaving her at home with an ice pack, but instead took her to Wairarapa Hospital.

Her heart rate suddenly elevated about 9pm, and her blood-oxygen levels dropped.

Her vital signs improved, then deteriorated about 11.30pm. Her heart rate and breathing quickened, and bruising to her inner legs appeared.

At 1.30am her condition worsened and she was flagged for an urgent transfer to intensive care at Wellington Hospital, but no service was available until 7.30am. Despite medical attention over the next 24 hours, her life support was turned off at 2.30pm the following day, and she died half an hour later.

Dunn's family criticised the lack of timeliness of her transfer to Wellington.

A specialist's report to the inquest said while Dunn's "shock" was underestimated, and a different outcome was "theoretically" possible, it was "by absolutely no means" certain that her life would have been save had she been transferred earlier.

Scott found that, if Dunn had been rescued from the tree earlier, there may have been a different outcome, "but no-one is responsible for that not happening".

 - Stuff