The Syracuse Post-Standard has just published documents detailing a potentially catastrophic medical mistake by St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in October 2009. They were about to harvest the organs of a patient they believed to be dead when she opened her eyes.
Doctors determined that a woman who had overdosed on Xanax and over-the-counter drugs had suffered cardiac death and irreversible brain damage. Her family agreed to take her off life support and let her organs be removed for transplant. However, as she was wheeled into the operating room, she woke from what had been a deep coma from the overdose.
When the state Department of Health reviewed the case, investigators found that staff had ignored signs of the patient's improvement. They determined that the woman had not suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest or irreversible brain damage. The state outlined steps that doctors failed to take, including performing enough brain scans, and testing to ensure the drugs were out of her system. Further, doctors ignored nurses' observations of her increasing neurological function.
The hospital was also criticized by state and federal authorities for not properly investigating how this mistake occurred, even after the Health Department found the case in a 2010 surprise inspection. In 2011, St. Joseph's finally submitted a plan to correct the identified problems. The state also ordered them to hire a consultant to review the hospital's quality assurance program and a consulting neurologist to teach staff how to diagnose brain death.
The state fined St. Joseph's $22,000 -- the largest fine against a Central New York hospital in nearly ten years. However, only $6,000 was for this incident. The bulk of it was for leaving another patient unattended. That patient fell and injured her head.
Neither the woman whose organs were nearly harvested nor her family sued the hospital. According to the family, the 41-year-old mother of three, who ended up committing suicide in early 2011, suffered from severe depression, and did not seem disturbed by the incident.
Since the family chose not to take legal action, this incident could have gone unreported to authorities. People who have experienced a medical error need to report it to help ensure that corrective actions are taken before anyone else is harmed. It is wise to at least consult with an attorney who specializes in medical malpractice suits to find out if you are entitled to compensation or other recourse.
Syracuse Post-Standard, "St. Joe's "dead" patient awoke as docs prepared to remove organs" John O'Brien and James T. Mulder, Jul. 09, 2013