And Another Preventable Death…

I know we’ve covered preventable deaths quite a bit lately, but the issue just doesn’t go away, and in this climate where the health care debate seems to be the most common topic of conversation, don’t you find it timely? I urge you again to read the Dead by Mistake series by Hearst Newspapers, which is what I was reading when I came across this story about another preventable death, this time at renowned Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The death took place in 2003 and involved Trevor Nelson, a healthy young (34) man who was a producer for the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” Nelson visited the hospital and was diagnosed with viral meningitis, which generally clears up in 7 to 10 days if left untreated. Within 24 hours, however, Nelson was dead, possibly from an overdose of prescription narcotics. To make matters worse, Nelson’s family claims the hospital tried to cover up its deadly mistake.

Nelson’s hospital records indicate he was given quite a cocktail of drugs, including Vicodin, morphine, Dilaudid, Tylenol 3 (which contains codeine), Ativan, and Fioricet, over a 15-hour span. At the end of that time period, Nelson had no pulse and was not breathing. The family took him off life support later the same day.

Massachusetts hospitals are required by law to report any of the 28 “never events” to the Department of Public Health. In addition, law indicates that if a patient dies within 24 hours of admission to a hospital OR if an otherwise healthy patient suddenly dies, an independent state medical examiner must be called to investigate the cause of death. In Nelson’s case, no inquiry was filed by the hospital, and the hospital itself conducted the autopsy. The autopsy indicated that Nelson did not have inflammation of the brain, but in contradiction the death certificate issued by the hospital noted that viral meningitis was the cause of death.

Nelson’s stepfather, a physician, said he requested an independent autopsy but that the hospital claimed the request was denied because the patient had been hospitalized for longer than 24 hours. Hospital records indicated, however, that Nelson was in the hospital just under 24 hours: he was admitted at 9:56 pm and died the following night at 9:50 pm.

Nelson’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital.