5 Infuriating Cases of Hospital Incompetence
Medical errors kill an uncountable number of people. Some estimates blame hospital errors for 250,000 deaths every year in the U.S., while others put the number at 440,000, calling it the third-leading cause of death. Doctors look at those stats and say, “These make absolutely no sense. You took a few tiny, unrepresentative samples and extrapolated eye-catching figures that defy all logic!” To which the statisticians say, “True, but why should I listen to anything you say? You work at a hospital, a place that we’ve established is full of errors.”
We’ll leave those groups to fight over just how common errors are (we expect doctors will win that fight, as they have scalpels). Meanwhile, let’s look at a couple mistakes that look remarkably bad, even by hospital standards.
The Wrong Hole
In 2012, a nurse in Rio de Janeiro had to feed a patient some soup. Ilda Vitor Maciel was half-paralyzed with a stroke, and though she was able to speak, she was taking food in through a feeding tube. This tube was the means through which nurse Ana was supposed to administer the soup. Instead, Ana transferred the soup into a syringe and injected it into a vein in the patient’s right arm.
Some news reports refer to this as an “alleged” incident, but the hospital did not dispute any part of the details. They just disputed whether this injection was what killed the woman. Maciel had a seizure right after the soup jab and died of a pulmonary embolism 12 hours later.
If it’s any comfort, Maciel was 88 years old and had surely lived a full life. Who among us doesn’t dream of living to that age and then dying in bed, infused with warm soup?
The Baby Mix-Up
Soon after a baby’s born, the parents coo over it, saying, “They have your eyes! And my nose!” These are not random words of affection. This is a forensic examination to determine whether the child is really theirs or whether the hospital switched it with some rando.
Consider one case out of Bogotá. Late in December 1988, two women were in the children’s hospital with their newborns. Mrs. Velasco had her son Carlos, while Mrs. Castro had her son William. When they walked out of the hospital, thanks to a switcheroo on the part of the hospital, Mrs. Velasco took William home, while Mrs. Castro took Carlos home.
Incompetent as that was, that’s sort of the way you’d imagine a hypothetical baby mix-up going down. A couple of things make the Bogotá case less forgivable, though. Mrs. Velasco and Mrs. Castro didn’t each have just one son with them in the hospital. They had two, and in each case, the two were identical twins. The hospital broke up twins Carlos and Wilber and also twins William and Jorge. That’s both a worse sin (interfering with each pair’s psychic bond) and a harder mistake to make, since identical twins are identical and therefore easy to keep together. Plus, though Mrs. Velasco delivered at the hospital, Mrs. Castro hadn’t. She gave birth at home and then brought her boys in weeks later for digestive problems. The hospital mixed one child from a pair who’d just been born with another one being examined in a whole different department.
The kids only found out the truth 25 years later. Someone who knew Jorge just happened to walk into a grocery store where William was working, mistook him for her friend and told him he had a doppelganger. You yourself have no way of learning the truth about your birth, because while you too were switched, you had no identical twin.
The Killer Wait
Esmin Green did not want to go to the hospital. She was admitted involuntarily in 2008 for a psychiatric evaluation. She sat down in the waiting room. Twenty-three hours later, she was still waiting there. Then, she fell off her seat and collapsed on the floor, facedown. One hour after this, staff checked on her and discovered she was dead. A blood cloth from her leg killed her — from the all the sitting.
This is the part where we crack a joke about how crowded waiting rooms are and how waiting times are murder. Except, we have surveillance footage showing this room, which does not look very crowded at all:
According to this Brooklyn hospital’s records, staff examined Green shortly before she died. The hospital falsified these records, and surveillance footage told the truth: She was never examined, and was never given the medication that the hospital had been ordered to give her when the city admitted her there.
The hospital responded to the incident by firing six employees. They also had to pay Green’s family a $2 million settlement. She wouldn’t have died that day had the hospital examined her in a timely manner — but also, she wouldn’t have died that day had she not been forcibly admitted at all.
When family members describe what’s wrong with a patient, it’s helpful if you speak the same language as them. If you don’t, try to find someone who does. If you’re in South Florida, the setting of our next case, and the family speaks Spanish, that shouldn’t be so hard.
After the Ramirez family brought in unconscious 18-year-old Willie one day in 1980, the doctors thought they heard them say one word clearly: “intoxicado.” Ah, so this guy overdosed, the doctors figured, and they started treating him accordingly. Only, that’s not exactly what intoxicado means. In this context, it meant they thought he was reacting to something he’d eaten (a bad hamburger at Wendy’s, they suspected).
In fact, he wasn’t suffering from drugs or post-Wendy’s syndrome (PWS). He had an intracerebellar hemorrhage. But the idea of drugs, unlike the vague suggestion that he’d eaten something would have, filled the doctors with such certainty that they went full steam ahead with the wrong treatment. Willie awoke a quadriplegic.
It might not be obvious from this short summary how much the hospital was to blame here. We’ll defer to a jury, who heard all the facts and decided the hospital owed Willie $71 million.
The Wrong Hole 2: This Time, It’s Personal
In 1993, a 68-year-old woman checked into a German hospital, complaining of persistent abdominal pains. The normal course of action here is to check the colon for blockages. A doctor fills the large intestine with a solution of barium sulfate through an enema and then does a scan. The barium salt shows up white on the X-ray, while the absence of white suggests obstructions. Here is a scan of the patient:
You might have some trouble interpreting these results. First, because you might not be a trained medical professional. Second, because the radiologist did not pour the barium into the woman’s rectum but rather into her vagina.
The doctor did notice one thing strange after inserting the enema hose. The barium suspension did not seem to be flowing as freely as it ought to, when presented with a tract as voluminous as the winding large intestine. So, the doctor turned a dial and ratcheted up the pressure of the enema. The fluid ripped a tear in the vagina and gave the patient an embolism. She died of the embolism and of vagal shock (which refers to the vagus nerve, not the vagina, not that that makes it any better). Authorities pressed manslaughter charges against the radiologist and ended up issuing a fine, for about $27,000 in today’s dollars.
This was not a unique case. Journals note other patients who have died after the same error, one dying 15 hours after the misplaced barium and another dying after three days. Under such circumstances, the family is unlikely to be very explicit in describing to friends how their loved one died. It’s definitely one of the more literal ways in which you can get brutally fucked by the health-care system.