On August 4, Spectrum Health entered into a confidential settlement with a family whose child suffered brain damage as a result of a negligently performed blood transfusion. The settlement put an end to a two-year legal battle and the family’s four-year struggle to make the hospital take accountability for its medical staff’s mistake.
In 2010, Regina Gort gave birth to a healthy baby girl at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, which is owned by Spectrum Health. A few hours later the baby began to look jaundiced. Jaundice is usually detected when the skin or eyes take on a yellowish color. It’s caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the body and is actually fairly common in newborns. Left untreated, jaundice can cause brain damage, but placing a newborn under special lights usually normalizes bilirubin levels.
When the doctor thought the phototherapy was working fast enough, he decided to perform an exchange transfusion to add fresh blood to the baby’s system and prevent brain damage.
Tragically, the procedure was done incorrectly and air got into the intravenous tubes that were bringing fresh blood into the baby’s body. The newborn went into cardiac arrest and suffered significant brain damage that would require lifelong care.
The doctor admitted the procedure had gone wrong and apologized immediately to the Gorts. He even left a note of apology at the baby’s bedside. Senior nursing staff and another administrative employee also apologized in person.
At first, Spectrum Health looked like it was going to do the right thing. It provided physical therapy for the baby, a rental home, a van, and paid for Mr. Gort’s lost wages.
Then the Gorts told Spectrum how much it would cost for the baby’s lifetime care. After two years Spectrum Health hadn’t responded to the estimate and had stopped providing nursing care, so the Gorts sued. Spectrum told them their estimate was being “re-evaluated”.
Four years after their daughter was born, on the first day of trial to determine how much Spectrum Health should pay the Gorts for their now-four-year-old’s lifetime care and the anguish the medical staff caused their family, the company settled the lawsuit. Finally, the family had a resolution and the compensation they deserved for the medical care needed and emotional pain they suffered.
So why did Spectrum Health hold out so long? The short answer is because it could. Unfortunately, the company’s behavior is commonplace in medical malpractice cases involving hospitals. Refusing to communicate with the family, refusing the financial support it and its staff admitted it owed, causing the family years of hardship and pain – these are tactics hospital systems often employ. To what end? After all that, the company did what it should have done immediately. In the interim it left the family in limbo, and limbo is stressful. I would like to think other healthcare companies would look at this case and learn from it, but my experience as a medical malpractice attorney leads me to believe they won’t.