Final Verdict: Death Not Due To Delay
Most people do not like to consider the possibility that doctors could make mistakes. We entrust our health to doctors, and it’s unsettling to think that they could have errors in judgment or mistake facts that could result in harm. It’s easier, most of the time, to simply assume that doctors are more or less always right.
However, when something goes wrong in a medical procedure or other treatment, all of this flies out the window. Our perception of doctors as virtually infallible is flipped. If doctors are always right, what went wrong here? We assume that whatever harm transpired must have been the result of a preventable, foreseeable error on the part of the physician. In many situations, the question of the ideal path forward may not have a clear answer, or it may involve a judgment call that depends on factors beyond a physician’s control.
It can be frustrating when doctors are unable to intervene in a medical emergency, especially when time is of the essence. Sometimes, however, there is a good reason not to act. The doctor may not be qualified to perform the emergency procedure, or may determine that the risks of acting are greater than the risks of not acting. Saddling a physician with the added specter of liability would prevent good decision-making, which is ultimately adverse to the best interests of the patient.
In October 2010, 62-year-old retiree Betty Burruss went into the Chesapeake Regional Medical Center for a colonoscopy. Betty had low blood pressure and a series of other medical conditions. During the colonoscopy, Betty suffered a ruptured spleen. The physician performing the colonoscopy did not identify the rupture, and Betty was sent home. She returned hours later with severe abdominal pain and returned, whereupon the rupture was recognized and she was admitted.
Because of Betty’s low blood pressure and pre-existing heart condition, attending physician Dr. Robert Chastenet worried that surgery to repair the rupture might be too risky, so he kept her under observation. Her blood pressure dropped even lower, and the hospital took steps to bring it back up to safe levels. After it stabilized, it began to drop again, and so Dr. Chastenet chose to move Betty into surgery. Unfortunately, it was too late and Betty passed away during the administration of general anesthesia.
At the request of Betty’s adult son, her estate sued Dr. Chastenet and the physician’s group, arguing that the surgery should have been performed immediately. By waiting, the low blood pressure caused significant stress on Betty’s heart, making it less likely that she would survive. An expert hired by the medical malpractice attorneys for her estate argued that if she had been taken to surgery immediately after the rupture was diagnosed, she would have had a higher chance of survival. They argued that this was medical malpractice which breached the ordinary standard of care.
However, Dr. Chastenet’s experts disagreed, stating that given Betty’s condition, it was reasonable to keep her under observation. They also pointed out that the ruptured spleen was likely to be fatal under any conditions, and that she had been bleeding from the rupture for ten hours. Although the trial had taken five days, the jury only needed one hour of deliberation before returning a verdict for the defense. Cohen & Cohen