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Dead By Mistake

Avoidable errors kept out of view “Lost, stolen or … never existed”

In November 2006, David Douma, 62, a nursing home executive from Michigan, suffered a broken neck when his taxi crashed on the way to San Francisco International Airport. Douma’s spinal cord was intact, and doctors at San Francisco General Hospital thought he could make a complete recovery. Two days later, while Douma was awaiting surgery, a nurse gave him morphine for pain, and within a few moments he was comatose and brain-dead, court records show. He died three weeks later. San Francisco General said records of the amount of morphine given Douma were “lost, stolen or have never existed,” court documents show. But lawyer Christopher Keane found a computer record suggesting that a nurse had given Douma double the dosage of morphine called for in his prescription. The city paid his family a settlement of $1.69 million, public records show.

Brain damage

Ailing with what proved to be kidney failure, appliance deliveryman John Henry Weatherspoon, 40, went to San Francisco General Hospital in 2005. After hours in the emergency room, he was given three doses of the powerful tranquilizer Versed to ease his agitation and discomfort, said his lawyer, Tim Hamilton. A nurse failed to monitor Weatherspoon, and the drugs sent him into cardiac arrest, causing irreversible brain damage and total disability, the lawyer said. City supervisors approved a $5.1 million settlement to pay for Weatherspoon’s lifelong care.

Untreated AIDS

More than a decade ago, Berkeley printer Donna McCarter, 61, was unknowingly exposed to HIV. But her infection went untreated for years because her doctors failed to order an HIV test, she said in a lawsuit.

Twice, her lawyer said, doctors failed to order HIV tests even when McCarter was hospitalized at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Medical Center for AIDS-associated illnesses – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998 and pneumocystis pneumonia in 2006. As a result, her illness went undiagnosed for nine years, said the lawyer, Felicia Curran. Homeless, unemployed, gravely ill and suffering from dementia, McCarter was finally tested in 2006 at UCSF and found to be suffering from full-blown AIDS. McCarter’s lawsuit against five doctors is pending. They have denied wrongdoing. A complaint against Alta Bates was dismissed.

‘Burned’ spinal cord

To ease chronic lung pain, Michael Ray Lee, a UC Berkeley neurobiology student, had surgery in 2006 to install a pump that would deliver anesthetic to nerves in his spine. But the pharmacy at Summit hospital in Oakland provided “toxic doses” of the drug bupivacaine, his lawsuit claimed. The dose was 10 times the strength ordered by the physician, said his lawyer, Steven Brewer, and when it was injected, Lee suffered “a chemical burn of the spinal cord” and permanent painful injuries. During a repeat procedure in 2008, Lee insisted on checking the drug before it was administered. Once again, the bupivacaine was 10 times too strong, Lee said. “You wouldn’t believe it – they tried to kill me again,” he told his lawyer. A hospital spokeswoman called the incident “very unfortunate and regrettable.” The lawsuit was settled confidentially.

A surfer’s death

While surfing at Half Moon Bay in 2004, electrician Paul Ethier, 29, was hit in the head with a surfboard and went to the emergency room at Seton Coastside Medical Center in Moss Beach. Dr. Jhon Poindexter sewed up Ethier’s head wound and sent him home, failing to detect a skull fracture, said the family’s lawyer, Doris Cheng. Hours later, Ethier collapsed with a brain hemorrhage. He died later. The ER physician said the surfer showed no signs of a skull fracture. A suit against the hospital was dismissed, but after a trial, the doctor was ordered to pay Ethier’s family $253,000, the most allowed by state law. The doctor didn’t return a reporter’s phone call.

The State Bar of California
Consumer Attorneys of California