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Navigating Through the Aftermath of an Unexpected Hospital Death

February 4, 2014

The unexpected death of a loved one during hospital treatment or surgery is a difficult experience. This tragedy is often marked by both grief and confusion. You may want answers about your loved one’s death, wondering what went wrong and if someone was at fault. In the aftermath of this tragedy information is crucial; there are steps you should take and things you should do quickly to discover exactly what happened.

Common instances of medical negligence that result in unexpected hospital death. Roughly 195,000 people die in US hospitals every year because of preventable, in-hospital medical errors. In these situations, the medical provider does something that causes care to fall below an acceptable level. A medical provider may have done something or failed do something that caused the patient’s death. Common causes of unexpected patient death in the hospital because of medical negligence include:

Anoxia/Hypoxia: Anoxia/hypoxia is brain damage that occurs when the brain is deprived of adequate oxygen. When the brain does not get enough oxygen its cells begin to rapidly die. In as little as four minutes permanent brain damage can occur, and the injury can lead to unexpected death.

Accidental medication overdose or medication error: Medication is a valuable tool of medical care. When administered correctly, medication saves lives. Sometimes, however, medical staff may make a wrong choice or violate patient safety rules when administering medication to patients. They may give the patient the wrong medicine, or they may give the patient too much medicine causing an overdose. The consequences of such an action can be deadly.

Electrolyte imbalance: A proper balance of electrolytes, including potassium, chloride, phosphate, magnesium, calcium, and sodium, is necessary to maintain human life (i.e., homeostasis). Electrolytes are essential to both nerve and muscle function within the body. There are specific names for each kind of electrolyte imbalance. Hyponatremia is an electrolyte disturbance that causes a patient’s sodium levels to drop dramatically, while hypokalemia refers to a drop in potassium. No matter the type of imbalance, if a medical professional fails to recognize or overlooks symptoms of any kind of electrolyte imbalance the consequences can be fatal. An imbalance can cause congestive heart failure, liver failure, kidney failure, brain seizures, coma, or paralysis.

Surgical error: When a surgeon errs during surgery, it is a surgical error. Types of surgical errors include preforming surgery on the wrong part of the body, cutting a blood vessel or organ inadvertently, turning off or ignoring a warning alarm of equipment monitoring patient vitals, performing surgeries that are unnecessary, using surgery tools negligently, delaying surgery unnecessarily, and reckless decision making under pressure.

Failure to monitor: When a medical provider fails to properly respond to a patient’s serious symptom, this is failure to monitor. This may include failure to monitor a patient’s vital signs, failure to communicate an important change to a physician, failure to recognize and respond to signs of distress, etc.

Failure to diagnose: When a physician fails to appropriately identify and treat a medical condition, this is a failure to diagnose. A physician may fail to recognize the problem all together, or he or she may misidentify the problem and subsequently administer treatment that is inappropriate. Reasons for failure to diagnose include failing to recognize signs and symptoms of a problem, improperly conducting a physical exam, failing to perform appropriate tests and screenings, failing to pay attention to a reported abnormal test result, misinterpreting lab results or test results, or delaying the referral of a patient to a specialist.

Immediately bring in a medical examiner to investigateThe sooner you can bring in the medical examiner the better. A thorough investigation is necessary to collect and preserve evidence and get answers, especially when the hospital and health care providers are providing little information, if any at all. The medical examiner works for the state and comparable to a medical law enforcement officer; they come to perform an autopsy and determine the cause and manner of death to maintain civil and criminal justice and protect public health. They can also provide you, the next of kin, with answers to your questions about the death. However, a medical examiner autopsy is not automatic. A death must fall within specified jurisdiction for it to be undertaken by the medical examiner.  In Michigan, medical examiner jurisdiction includes:

a)     In-hospital deaths during the first 24 hours of care

b)     Any unexpected sudden death

c)      Unexpected or unexplained deaths occurring or following any dental, medical or surgical procedure or therapy (e.g., collapse during wire-guided angiography or other invasive studies to diagnose a disease process)

d)     Deaths attributed to an injury sustained while hospitalized

e)     Death on arrival (DOA) or death in the Emergency Room where the patient has not been seen by physician in the past forty-eight hours, unless the attending physician has knowledge of established disease

f)       Death by violence, whether accidental or purposeful, self-inflicted or caused by another, including: asphyxiation, poisoning, drowning, electrocution, falling from a height, fire or explosion, vehicle accident, radiation-induced, or trauma of any kind

g)     Death from an illegal abortion

h)     Suicide

i)       Fetal death without medical attendance

(For more information on jurisdiction, see Michigan Consolidated Law, MCLA 52.203).

Insist on an independent autopsy. The medical examiner’s office will decline to undertake an investigation if the death falls outside of the criteria. If that occurs, the family should get a private autopsy to preserve evidence and get answers. Any time the cause of death is unknown or uncertain a family should pursue an independent autopsy (i.e., one performed by a forensic pathologist not affiliated with the hospital or health professional involved in the care). Even if the unexplained or unexpected death is apparently natural (and therefore outside of the medical examiner system) it is still wise to pursue an independent autopsy. Failure to get an autopsy often bars any legal action later, because critical evidence is lost, buried, or unknown. Other situations in which to seek independent autopsies include obstetric deaths, perinatal or pediatric deaths, or deaths attributed to an injury sustained while hospitalized.

It is important to hire an independent forensic pathologist not affiliated with hospital to perform the autopsy on your loved one.  A hospital-employed pathologist may be less thorough or reluctant to disclose the truth if evidence of malpractice is found.

Promptly seek legal help. If there is evidence of malpractice, it is important to immediately seek legal help. A legal professional can help you gather and preserve evidence, and determine if there was malpractice and how to proceed.  If you or someone you know has recently experienced the unexpected death of a loved one and circumstances suggest possible medical negligence, it is important you contact an experienced and knowledgeable medical negligence attorney without delay to protect your interests.  The best attorneys have medical professionals on staff and immediately investigate the claim to determine if the unexpected death was caused by negligence.  Buchanan Firm’s team has attorneys, doctors, nurses, and paralegals to guide and help you in this difficult time.