The medical staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital Center in Syracuse, New York may have committed the ultimate act of malpractice in 2009 — a litany of errors that culminated in doctors wrongly pronouncing her dead and preparing to harvest her organs when Caroline Burns, 41, suddenly opened her eyes. What is equally troubling is that the hospital was fined just $6000 and never called to account in a court of law. Burns committed suicide a few years later in 2011. It is not clear why she or her family chose not to sue (also some reports have her name as Colleen Burns).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a report on the incident.
Burns was admitted after an overdose of Xanax and Benadryl. The mistakes began almost immediately at the hospital. It was recommended that the doctors order activated charcoals to stop the absorption of the drugs but the doctors failed to do so. That allowed the drugs to be absorbed in the system and she started to suffer seizures. Yet, CT scans showed that her brain waves remained normal. Doctors told the family that she was gone and they agreed to discontinue life support.
The report found that the doctors misdiagnosed cardiopulmonary arrest and then misdiagnosed irreversible brain death. They declared her brian dead despite that fact that Burns would curl her toes when touched, move her mouth and tongue and flare her nose — classic responses for a person who is not brain dead. Moreover, while she was on a respirator, she was beginning to breathe on her own.
The doctors proceeded to harvest her organs only to have her wake up on the table. One would expect the mother of all torts actions, but Burns took her own life in 2011. The hospital was fined just $6,000 for unacceptable patient care. One report says that there was an additional fine of $16,000 from the state of New York for leaving her unattended and allowing her to fall. Notably, that failure was given more weight than the horrific series of negligence in the diagnosis. Moreover, the total amount would also be little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist for the hospital. There is no record of any discipline against the doctors or effort to have their licenses suspended or withdrawn.
It is the type of phobia that keeps some people from agreeing to be organ donors — the fear that medical staff will be too eager or negligent in their pronouncement of death. The case may well also revive the controversy over a move a couple years ago to allow doctors to harvest organs when patients are listed as dying as opposed to dead.