Hospitals protect doctors, doctors protect doctors, and nurses protect nurses. Sometimes they even go so far as to cover-up for each other.
Almost two years after an 87-year-old woman died in a Texas hospital, her family received shocking news. She did not pass away peacefully as the doctor led them to believe.
The patient was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. The family watched her health steadily deteriorate, so they were not shocked when told their mother had passed away. For two years, they were under the assumption that the cause of death was from complications with the pneumonia.
In January 2017, the deceased woman’s daughter received an anonymous letter and a package of documents stating that her mother had actually died from a horrific event, the results of a procedure gone badly.
According to the letter, a doctor attempted to insert a catheter into a major vein in the patient’s neck in order to start dialysis – a treatment that could have potentially helped the woman’s kidney problems. The doctor’s first attempt did not stick; a second attempt went even worse. The wire got stuck. As the doctor struggled to get it out, the woman’s heart stopped and blood spewed from her body. There was so much blood it soaked her hospital gown. The patient’s heart stopped; she was revived, but it stopped again.
What went wrong? How could this happen? Why was the family not told the truth? Why was someone coming forward now? Looking for clues, the deceased woman’s daughter eventually located the nurse who wrote the letter.
The nurse was off duty at the time of the tragic event. Learning what happened, the nurse said she reviewed the patient’s medical file and was horrified at what she learned. She figured the hospital would investigate and take action to discipline those responsible, but a few weeks later, she realized nothing had been done and the family was never told the truth. The nurse raised the issue with a superior, but the situation was brushed it aside. A month later, when still nothing had changed, she reached out to the hospital’s corporate office. She was told it was none of her concern and to let hospital leadership handle the situation. Again, nothing was done. This time, the nurse wrote to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the agency that investigates hospitals. Although she signed her name to the letter, she asked to remain anonymous. The agency concluded that the hospital had violated the patient’s rights by failing to get consent before the operation, however, it took no enforcement action. The hospital was not fined and the doctor was cleared of any wrongdoing. The only punishable action as a result was to the nurse who put honesty and patient safety ahead of corporate profits and cover-ups. She was terminated after the agency released her letter to the hospital. Texas law requires hospital investigations be kept secret, but includes no such protections for those who step forward to report wrongdoing.
This case is a travesty. Maybe the patient would have died from pneumonia, but the actual cause of death was absolutely preventable, treatment was negligent and there is absolutely no accountability for the perpetrator.
Nothing prevents healthcare providers and insurance companies from acknowledging a medical mistake and providing a reasonable offer of compensation without the necessity of a contentious lawsuit. It is the medical professionals who draw lines in the sand, who seek legislative protections, and who continuously and unreasonably deny, delay, and defend claims, even when they are clearly at fault. If lax oversight and laws protecting the medical community wasn’t enough, tort reform measures then make it difficult to hold negligent wrongdoers accountable.
Yet, after hearing the nurse’s story, and reviewing the medical records, an attorney agreed to represent the family in a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital and doctor. “Taking the case was not a smart financial decision,” said the plaintiff’s attorney. “We don’t expect to make money on this. We’re here because people more noble than myself set an example of courage that’s pretty hard to match.”
Trial attorneys fight every day to build a safer system of care to ensure that patients are safe from accidental injury. Safety in medical care, if discussed at all by the medical profession, is discussed only behind closed doors under the protection of confidentiality. That is why it is so important to get issues of patient safety before the public in a jury trial if you or a loved one have been injured due to a medical error.
Wouldn’t it be nice if hospitals and the rest of the medical community stopped looking the other way when doctors injure and/or kill patients? Why is protecting health care providers more important than protecting patients; that “making more money” has replaced “do no harm?” Restricting legal recourse will only protect the negligent wrongdoers. Until patient safety is the first priority, malpractice lawsuits and trial lawyers are the victims’ only hope.
Experienced attorney, lawsuit funding expert, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Legal Thriller Series. The series features super-trial lawyer Zachary Blake handling "ripped from the headlines" legal and political issues of the day. The series currently consists of Betrayal of Faith, Betrayal of Justice, Betrayal in Blue, Betrayal in Black, and Betrayal High, with a sixth Zachary Blake novel due out later this year. To learn more about these topical social justice legal thrillers. please visit markmbello.com. Mark is a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.