A Prince George’s County jury on Friday awarded our client $5.5 million dollars for the wrongful death of her mother because of medical malpractice. The offer to settle before trial: zero.
Here’s what happens. A woman goes in for a cardiac bypass surgery. Her surgeon and two surgical technicians successfully bypass the problematic areas of her heart with vein grafts taken from one of her legs. Right before they close her up, someone (more on that later) places pacing wires on the surface of her heart. The surgeon and techs finish everything up, and the patient goes to recovery.
Keep in mind the pacing wires are a precautionary measure. When a patient’s chest is closed, the opposite ends of the wires are left outside the body. If a doctor needs to regulate a patient’s heart rate after surgery, the ends of the pacing wires are hooked up to a little machine that stimulates the heart just enough to get it to beat regularly. When the wires are no longer needed, they are gently pulled out of the body or clipped at the skin level and left in.
So, after the surgery, everything goes according to plan. Soon, our client’s mother is out of the ICU and in a regular hospital room. She and her daughter spent Saturday evening watching a TV program with Barbara Walters about open-heart surgery, and the entire family makes plans to watch the Super Bowl together in the hospital room the next day.
Our client and her mother reflect on the past few days as they watch TV, feeling like the worst was behind them. That’s the worst feeling. You think you have made it over the hill only to find out you have not even seen the hill yet. The daughter leaves the hospital to get some much-needed rest, not knowing that she had spoken with her mother for the last time.
Sunday morning, a nurse removes the pacing wires. He does exactly what he’s supposed to do, but within a minute, our client’s mother complains about being short of breath. She bleeds profusely from her incision site. She sits bolt upright, looks at the nurse, and says, “I think I’m dying.” The patient loses consciousness, is rushed into emergency surgery, and sadly never recovers. She passes away on Super Bowl Sunday, surrounded by her shocked and grief-stricken family.
I can’t even comprehend what a horrible situation this family went through. You would think I would, from having this job. But I can’t. You have a family member undergo major surgery; they spend nearly an entire week recovering, and then, out of nowhere, you’re planning a funeral. It really is awful. What makes that “awful” feeling even worse is that this woman did not die because the surgery was unsuccessful, or because there were complications: she died when the pacing wires were pulled. That’s supposed to be the easy part. It’s hardly even a “procedure.” It’s done by a nurse, in a regular hospital room, without a doctor’s supervision. It just seems – because it was – so avoidable.
So what happened? There’s no dispute that when the pacing wires were pulled, one or more of the wires lacerated the patient’s new bypass graft. That causes death on her death certificate. All the blood that was supposed to be going to the heart muscle pooled in the patient’s chest, and she bled to death. Bottom line: this is NOT supposed to happen.
Naturally, you might wonder: Who placed the wires in the patient’s chest? Where were the wires placed? How close were the wires placed to the new vein graft? How many pacing wires were used? I’m sure the jury wanted those answers too.
At trial, the Defendant doctor and both of his surgical technicians testified that they had no recollection of placing the wires in the patient’s chest. They didn’t even know who put the wires in.
Fine, I get it. They do hundreds of these surgeries every year, and they can’t possibly be expected to remember every single one. We can’t hold these people to a ridiculous standard.
But they take notes, right? Medical providers keep a record of that stuff so they don’t have to remember every little detail. You would think inserting pacing wires on a patient’s heart would fall into that category, but neither the surgeon nor the surgical techs made any effort to record that information.
So, we don’t have those answers. The Defendant used the lack of information as an opportunity to say, “You can’t prove I breached the standard of care.” That is how they tried the case. It was a classic “you can’t really prove it” defense.
But the question was the most likely cause? The wires must have been placed too close to the vein graft, or they must have become looped around the vein graft when they were inserted. Somebody was not paying careful attention when the wires were placed. How do we know that? Because if the wires had been placed correctly, this would not have happened. It really is that simple sometimes.
Rod Gaston from our office tried the case. When the case first came in, Rod and I talked about whether we should take the case. It was not a no-brainer.
We knew what the defense would be. We figured there would be no significant offer. It was zero, as it turned out. We also knew that the doctor, while making an awful mistake, was a good doctor and a decent guy. We also thought it was a meritorious case. After we agreed to take the case, Rod put on his chinstrap and didn’t pop it off until after the verdict came back on Friday. I’m proud of his effort and thrilled that this client could get justice and closure.