A Serious Complication

At 38 years old, Clay Chandler stood 6’2” and weighed around 375 pounds. The father of two and veteran of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office in Florida always passed his physicals, but when he learned about the prestigious and nationally accredited gastric bypass program at Memorial Hospital, he decided to give it a try to shed some of the pounds.

During the 2007 surgery, doctors opened his abdominal cavity and reduced the size of his stomach, while arranging for food to bypass part of his small intestine. The idea is, the patient will eat less and absorb less of what he does eat, leading to weight loss. Unfortunately, in Chandler’s case, the surgery also led to an anastomotic leak, with fluids seeping out of his gastrointestinal tract. Though Chandler displayed classic symptoms of a leak, including difficulty breathing, he was left in critical care for eight days before doctors went in to diagnose and fix the problem.

By then, it was too late, and Chandler went into cardiac arrest and septic shock, suffered severe brain damage, and spent over two weeks in a coma. He emerged from the coma permanently mentally and physically disabled, in need of round-the-clock care, and unable to perform even the most basic life functions on his own.

Nationally Accredited Program

The extent of the neglect is shocking, says Chandler’s lawyer, Jacksonville-based attorney Tom Edwards. “A leak is a very serious complication that can kill the patient,” Edwards explains. “Unless you can definitely rule out a leak, you’re supposed to go back in and resew it.”

The hospital was obviously aware of the dangers. Memorial had received a “Bariatric Center of Excellence” certificate, and advertised that their facilities “must meet stringent quality criteria, as established by expert physician panels, surgeons, behaviorists, and nutritionists.” However, during testimony, Memorial CEO James Wood repeatedly admitted that the hospital hadn’t followed basic peer review policies designed to ensure patient safety. What’s more, John Deperi, the doctor in charge of Chandler’s care, was not actually certified to perform the surgery.

As if that weren’t enough, while Chandler was in a coma, he was again neglected, suffering from bedsores, frozen joints and ultimately was blinded when eye drops were not administered with any regularity. “He’s a total care patient for the rest of his life,” Edwards says. “He needs to be bathed, he can’t use his arms or hands to pull his blanket up if he gets cold, and can’t scratch his nose without help.” A jury heard enough and awarded Chandler, his wife, and two teenage children a total of $178 million for liability and punitive damages.

History of Fraud

Chandler may not be the only patient injured by the hospital’s negligence. A former Memorial nurse testified during the trial that the hospital had ignored her complaints of serious patient care issues for years. “Patients who have had problems need to look at who was doing surgery, and whether the hospital followed the guidelines they represented to the public they were following,” Edwards says.

Memorial Hospital is part of Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), a massive network comprised of 163 hospitals and another 109 freestanding surgery centers in the United States and Britain which calls itself the “nation’s leading provider of healthcare services.” However, this isn’t the first time the corporate giant has found itself on the wrong end of a fraud case. Over two settlements in 2000 and 2002, HCA paid out $1.7 billion to the United States government after running massive Medicare and Medicaid scams in the 1990s.

As a result of the suit, the healthcare company operated from 2000 to 2009 under a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services mandating strict ethics and compliance measures. Was the agreement effective? The fraud documented in Chandler’s case, in which the hospital did not meet their own advertised standards of care and certification, came in 2007 when the agreement was ostensibly still in place.

“Things Were Done Appropriately”

“I sure hope Memorial Hospital and HCA have learned their lesson,” Edwards says. “They had a good program in place in writing. They simply were cutting corners and not following their own policies. If they were following good safety procedures, this never would have happened.”

What measures for improving the hospital plans to take following the jury ruling is unclear. The hospital issued a statement indicating it plans to appeal, and in a brief interview after the award was announced, Memorial CEO James Wood told a television reporter, “We feel like things were done appropriately. The verdict was a surprise,” before getting in his car and driving away.

“He said that to the news media, but his sworn testimony before the jury would seem to contradict it,” Edwards noted.

By: Aaron Krase

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