LONDON — It started out as a joke, but ended in tragedy.
The sudden death of a nurse who unwittingly accepted a prank call to a London hospital about Prince William’s pregnant wife Kate has shocked Britain and Australia, and sparked an angry backlash Saturday from some who argue the DJs who carried out the hoax should be held responsible.
At first, the call by two irreverent Australian DJs posing as royals was picked up by news outlets around the world as an amusing anecdote about the royal pregnancy. Some complained about the invasion of privacy, the hospital was embarrassed, and the radio presenters sheepishly apologized.
But the prank took a dark twist Friday with the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two, three days after she took the hoax call. Police have not yet determined Saldanha’s cause of death, but people from London to Sydney have been making the assumption that she died because of stress from the call.
King Edward VII’s Hospital, where the former Kate Middleton was being treated for acute morning sickness this week, wrote a strongly-worded letter to the 2DayFM radio station’s parent company Southern Cross Austereo, condemning the “truly appalling” hoax and urging it to take steps to ensure such an incident would never happen again.
“The immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients,” the letter read. “The longer term consequence has been reported around the world and is, frankly, tragic beyond words.”
The hospital did not comment when asked whether it believed the prank call had directly caused Saldanha’s death, only saying that the protest letter spoke for itself.
DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, who apologized for the prank on Tuesday, took down their Twitter accounts after they were bombarded by thousands of abusive comments. Rhys Holleran, CEO of Southern Cross Austereo, said the pair have been offered counseling and were taken off the air indefinitely.
No one could have foreseen the tragic consequences of the prank, he stressed.
“I spoke to both presenters early this morning and it’s fair to say they’re completely shattered,” Holleran told reporters on Saturday.
“These people aren’t machines, they’re human beings,” he said. “We’re all affected by this.”
Details about Saldanha have been trickling out since the duty nurse’s body was found at apartments provided by the private hospital, which has treated a line of royals before, including Prince Philip, who was hospitalized there for a bladder infection in June.
The nurse, who was originally from India, had lived with her partner Benedict Barboza and a teenage son and daughter in Bristol, in southwestern England, for the past nine years. The hospital praised her as a “first-class nurse” who was well-respected and popular among colleagues during her four years working there.
Just before dawn on Tuesday, Saldanha was looking after her patients when the phone rang. A woman pretending to be Queen Elizabeth II asked to speak to the duchess, and, believing the caller, Saldanha transferred the call to a fellow nurse caring for the duchess, who spoke to the two DJs about Kate’s condition live on air.
During the call — which was put online and later broadcast on news channels worldwide — Grieg mimicked the Britain’s monarch’s voice and asked about the duchess’ health. She was told Kate “hasn’t had any retching with me and she’s been sleeping on and off.” Grieg and Christian, who pretended to be Prince Charles, also discussed with the nurse when they could travel to the hospital to check in on Kate.
Three days later, officers responding to reports that a woman was found unconscious discovered Saldanha, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Police didn’t release a cause of death, but said they didn’t find anything suspicious. A coroner will make a determination on the cause.
In the aftermath of Saldanha’s death, some speculated about whether the nurse was subject to pressure to resign or about to be punished for the mistake. Royal officials said Prince William and Kate were “deeply saddened,” but insisted that the palace had not complained about the hoax. King Edward VII’s Hospital also maintained that it did not reprimand Saldanha.
“We did not discipline the nurse in question. There were no plans to discipline her,” a hospital spokesman said. He declined to provide further details, and did not respond to questions about the second nurse’s condition.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which regulates radio broadcasting, said it has received complaints about the prank and is discussing the matter with the Sydney-based station, which yanked its Facebook page after it received thousands of angry comments.
Holleran, the radio executive, would not say who came up with the idea for the call. He only said that “these things are often done collaboratively.” He said 2DayFM would work with authorities, but was confident the station hadn’t broken any laws, noting that prank calls in radio have been happening “for decades.”
The station has a history of controversy, including a series of “Heartless Hotline” shows in which disadvantage people were offered a prize that could be taken away from them by listeners.
Saldanha’s family asked for privacy in a brief statement issued through London police.
Flowers were left outside the hospital’s nurse’s apartments, with one note reading: “Dear Jacintha, our thoughts are with you and your family. From all your fellow nurses, we bless your soul. God bless.”
Officials from St. James’s Palace have said the duchess is not yet 12 weeks pregnant. The child would be the first for her and William.