Four different families brought allegations of mistreatment at Sutter Coast Hospital to the Del Norte Healthcare District board’s attention on Tuesday.
Dr. Greg Duncan, who was elected to the board last year, encouraged the families to provide their loved ones’ medical records so he and his colleagues could investigate the complaints further.
The board also urged the families to bring their concerns to the attention of the Sutter Coast Hospital Board of Directors.
“It’s my personal feeling that a lot of things that happened like these folks are sharing with us are not being conveyed to the Sutter (Coast) board,” said healthcare district board member Dwayne Reichlin, pointing out the Sutter Coast Hospital board of directors is made up of Del Norte and Curry County residents. “That’s one of the things I feel is important is to get that message to those folks somehow because in my opinion they have more responsibility to this community than they actually realize they do.”
Connie Williams spoke first on behalf of her mother, Smith River resident Edna Smith.
Williams said three years ago her mother was admitted to the emergency room at Sutter Coast Hospital and stayed in the hospital for 11 days. She said doctors diagnosed her mother with a stroke, said she had compromised internal organs and gave her a “20 percent chance of survival.”
Within the next few days, Williams said doctors told her that her mother had pneumonia and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
“Mom was on a ventilator for 10 days,” Williams said. “We were told that she would not be allowed to stay on the ventilator for any longer than 10 days because it was against hospital policy. We learned later that many patients are alive today because they’re on ventilators all the time. The third day they told us she had MRSA and also we discovered a DNR bracelet on her. That means do not resuscitate. We asked them to take it off; the doctor refused.”
Williams said when her family wanted to remove Smith from Sutter Coast they received threats.
“They said that if we pulled mom out of Sutter Coast at any point in time, all of our bills would be our responsibility, that the insurance companies would not pay,” Williams said. “We found out later that was a lie.”
Williams described a meeting with her mother’s doctor at Sutter Coast Hospital on the 10th day of her stay, at which point they were to take Smith off the ventilator.
“We went into the meeting, the doctor was obviously hostile toward us,” Williams said. “She said it’s time to let your mom go and we said well, wait a minute, what are our options here? At that time (the doctor) said your mom has had a stroke, she’s had MRSA, she’s had pneumonia, she’s had a heart attack. (I asked) ‘who’s the cardiac specialist here?’ At the time, they didn’t have one. That was our ticket out.”
Smith was flown to a hospital in Redding where doctors found no evidence that she had MRSA, pneumonia or a heart attack, Williams said. Williams said her mother was in the hospital in Redding for about a month and spent another six weeks in physical therapy. A recent visit to a cardiac specialist also turned up no evidence that Smith had a heart attack, Williams said.
“In essence, we feel that we have been lied to,” she said. “We have been misdiagnosed. We have been put through hell. Imagine seeing your mother lying unconscious for a month and having all of these misdiagnoses happening right under our noses. It was terrible. It was absolutely terrible.”
Although she said she doesn’t want to sue Sutter Coast Hospital, Smith said she wants them held accountable.
“We need something to happen that’s not just, ‘we talked about it, it’s over, slide it under the rug,’” Smith said. “It’s time to do something positive for Del Norte County.”
Crescent City resident Toni Jaeger said her husband, John Jaeger, went to Sutter Coast Hospital on Feb. 21, diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to the intensive care unit. Jaeger said her husband was being treated and seemed to be fine. She said she visited him until just before dark and spoke with him on the phone that evening.
“At 8 o’clock the next morning I received a call from the ICU nurse stating that my husband was in the process of dying and if I wanted to see him while he was alive I needed to hurry up and come in,” Jaeger told the Healthcare District Board. “When I got to his room, he was fully comatose, having been like that since 4 a.m. I was in complete shock and disbelief because when I left John the evening before, he seemed to be doing well. What happened between the time I saw him and the next morning was like night and day.”
Jaeger said she later learned that the doctor had removed the supplemental oxygen her husband had been dependent upon for about four years. The doctor administered Ativan and a morphine drip, Jaeger said, until her husband “died from lack of oxygen and respiratory suppressing drugs.”
“My husband’s legally-executed physician’s orders for life sustaining treatment was violated,” Jaeger said, adding that her husband’s orders called for full treatment. “Before all of this happened, I was never informed of what was done or being done to my husband, though I was John’s legal surrogate. Even after he died no one told me what had taken place. When I asked questions to find out why John had died so fast answers were vague and evasive.”
John Jaeger died on Feb. 23.
Toni Jaeger said she hopes that “something will be done” to prevent other patients and families from going through what she went through.
Elizabeth Freeman, who also lives in Crescent City, said her husband died at Sutter Coast Hospital on March 10, 2015 at the age of 81. She said he went to the hospital’s emergency room with a fractured femur that ended up with “a lot of complications.”
“He was flown out to Asante Rogue (Regional Medical Center) in Medford,” Freeman said. “I brought him home, eventually, thinking we could take care of him at home, but his physical problems got too complicated. We ended up coming back to Sutter.”
Freeman described a meeting with the case management team for her husband. She said she asked a friend who is a doctor to accompany her. When he asked to record the meeting, Freeman said, the case manager refused stating that it was against hospital policy. Freeman said when her friend pressed the issue, asking the case manager to show him the policy, the case manager “stomped out of the room.”
According to Freeman, one of the doctors treating her husband at Sutter Coast Hospital aggressively pushed end of life care for him.
“This particular person obviously feels she has the power to do what she wants to do; I had so many dealings with her,” Freeman said. “When my husband finally said I can’t take any more medications, they’re just not working, she totally changed on a dime and became very pleasant to us where before she was very angry all the time at me because I advocated for my husband.”
Freeman said when her husband passed it happened very suddenly.
“I went to lay down and I woke up and my husband was dead,” she said. “It was the oddest thing. When I would leave the hospital or even go on a break things would happen.”
Freeman said one phone call she received from the hospital concerned the doctor putting a port in her husband.
“They had him restrained on this gurney and they were putting this port into him and were going to do this without any anesthetic or anything else,” she said. “They didn’t get that done because I would not sign the papers. I would not sign for that to be done because they were doing this without any anesthetic and there was no need for this port to be in there.”
Another man, who declined to give his last name, said his mother had been admitted to Sutter Coast Hospital in February after a fall. He said the emergency room failed to X-ray her lower back when his mother first arrived at the hospital and sent her home. When they returned to the hospital three days later, another X-ray revealed his mother had a fractured vertebrae in her lower back.
The man further stated the hospital did an MRI on his mother even though she has a pacemaker. The hospital used the wrong brace on her and administered an overdose of Dilaudid.
“The ICU could not find a reason as to why she was declining so rapidly,” he told the healthcare district board. “They finally agreed to transport her, but it was too late as she passed.”
Following the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting, board member Terry McNamara asked the board’s counsel, Joel Campbell-Blair, if the people who spoke could bring a class-action lawsuit against Sutter Coast Hospital.
Campbell-Blair said a class-action lawsuit likely wouldn’t work because the cases aren’t similar enough. He noted that medical malpractice lawsuits are also expensive.
“You’re asking a jury to put a dollar amount on what your life is worth along with what your suffering is worth,” he said. “Those are vague.”
Campbell-Blair also noted the district doesn’t have the authority to regulate the hospital.
Duncan pointed out that there are commissions at the state and federal level, including The Joint Commission, that have the authority to oversee quality care.
“I think the next step is to get a better handle on the facts of these cases and we could convene amongst ourselves in possibly a closed session and see what we can do to help,” Duncan said.
Reached for comment on Wednesday, Sutter Health spokeswoman Leslie Meiring said she couldn’t comment on specific patient experiences.
“We value our patients’ privacy so cannot comment on specific patient experiences, but our top priority is providing safe quality care,” Meiring said via e-mail. “We encourage any patients or their loved ones who have questions or concerns to call our administration department at (707) 464-8880.”
Williams said she took her concerns to the hospital’s medical chief of staff.
Jaeger said she notified the hospital’s risk administrator.
“I received a letter saying my husband’s care was acceptable; everything was done fine,” Jaeger said. “I sent out a letter to the CEO and received no response. I sent it out a second time, no response.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .