WHY WE NEED A STRONG CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEM
My name is Susan Males. In 2011, I was a healthy, vibrant woman in her mid-40’s. I had a secure job with the opportunity for advancement, wonderful husband and family and I enjoyed traveling. I felt I was in the prime of my life. I went to my doctor for my yearly check-up and discussed some heart palpitations that I was experiencing. My doctor recommended I see a specialized cardiologist – an electrophysiologist who strictly focuses on heart rhythms – to have some testing done.
The electrophysiologist put me on a heart monitor which revealed that I did have some irregular heartbeats. It was recommended that I have a heart catheterization procedure to take a look at the arteries surrounding my heart to see if there was some type of abnormality or something causing my irregular heartbeats. The doctor referred me to a cardiologist at the same hospital where he was located. This particular doctor, I was told, did several of these procedures daily.
Up until this point in my life, I had never had a major health scare. I was nervous, to say the least. I was assured by the nurses that a cardiac catheterization was very “routine.” They told me I’d show up to the hospital in the morning, they would do the procedure and I’d be home resting comfortably by lunch time. There was no talk of what could happen, no talk of any risks to this procedure.
I only briefly met the cardiologist who would be doing my procedure, and I didn’t have a real patient/doctor relationship with him. He was just the doctor who my electrophysiologist said did cardiac catheterization at the same hospital where I was being treated. I put my faith in this new doctor because he did so many of these “routine” procedures on a daily basis. I trusted him and assumed he knew what he was doing.
After fasting overnight for my morning procedure, my husband took me to the hospital. We were told there was a delay because the cardiologist was still with another patient. As the hours went by and my anxiety about having the procedure grew, I asked to reschedule the appointment. Not to mention, I hadn’t eaten and was getting very hungry. Plus, my husband had to get to work that afternoon. The nurses told me the doctor was going to be with me shortly. Thankfully, my parents came to wait with me and had planned to drive me home after the procedure, so my husband could get to work.
I was finally taken back for the cardiac catheterization after several hours of anxiously waiting. As I awoke after the procedure, I was very, very nauseous with an excruciating headache and my vision was very foggy, to the point where I could not see. I could hear a nurse standing to my left, asking me if I was awake and okay, but I could not see her. My left field of vision was gone. The nurse ordered something for my nausea and eventually I was given Tylenol for the headache. The nurse also called for a neurologist to come see me about the headache and loss of vision. I was told they were going to keep me overnight for observation. My parents immediately called my husband to come back to the hospital.
My “routine” procedure had turned into something much more. As anyone who has stayed at a hospital overnight can tell you, it wasn’t a restful night of sleep, and I continued to have the splitting headache. I don’t recall a neurologist or the cardiologist who did the procedure ever coming to check on me as to why I had the headache or why I was experiencing the vision loss. When morning came, the nurse for my electrophysiologist noticed I had been admitted to the hospital and came to check on me. When he came in the room and I explained what had been going on, he instantly looked very worried. He told me that I was going for a CT scan and a MRI because he was concerned I had had a stroke.
Immediately the doctors read my scans. I heard “code blue” over the speakers in the hallway. It turns out that “code blue” was for me. Nurses and doctors came rushing in and told me I had indeed had a stroke and they were airlifting me to another hospital for a stroke intervention. My husband and I were scared to death. Everything was happening so fast. I was taken to another hospital in a helicopter with strangers who looked like they were out of the movie Top Gun. My husband couldn’t stay with me and was told to drive and meet me at the new hospital.
When we arrived at the second hospital, doctors told me they wanted to do a cerebral angiography to determine if they could treat the blood clot in my brain responsible for the stroke. They told me that there were risks to this procedure and it could fix the stroke, or it could make it much, much worse. They wanted immediate consent to do the procedure, because time is of the essence when it comes to stroke care. My husband and I talked it over and decided to go through with the stroke treatment.
Before they wheeled me away, my husband and I were allowed a brief moment alone to talk, cry and say “I love you” to each other. It was the hardest moment we’ve faced in our marriage. Not knowing what was going to happen or what condition I would be in when the procedure was over. Would I be better? Or would I be worse?
Unfortunately, the procedure did not make me better, but luckily it did not make my symptoms worse. It was determined that I had a stroke during the cardiac catheterization and that it was too late to give me a drug, TPA, to treat the blood clot. Had the first hospital recognized that my symptoms after the surgery were consistent with a stroke, they could have given me the TPA and I would have returned to my normal self.
I was at the hospital for 5 days so they could monitor me to be sure the blood clot wasn’t doing any more damage in my brain. I saw several doctors and therapists in those days at the hospital.
I was on medical leave from my job for nearly 5 months. I had several doctor appointments and various therapy appointments every week. I’m thankful for my wonderful husband and family to help me through this difficult time. Because of my vision loss, I could no longer drive and I relied on them to take me to all of my doctor appointments.
I was told that my vision loss would be permanent. It was a crushing blow. I was used to being self-sufficient and taking care of myself. I wasn’t used to depending on others to help me with my daily life. I started to see a psychologist to help me get through the grief of losing my vision, and my independence. I sought out advice from other stroke survivors who also lost their vision. After a lot of therapy and friends, family and my husband cheering me on, I decided to take charge of my life, learn to adapt to my new situation and move forward.
Unfortunately, I can no longer drive. My earnings potential has been cut off, because to move up in my career I would have to travel, which is difficult for me. I am lucky to have an employer who allows me to work from home 2 days a week. The other 3 days, I have to hire a driver to take me to and from work. I rely heavily on my husband and family to help me get around.
I turned to the civil justice system to seek recourse. I wanted to hold the doctors and hospital accountable for their lack of response to my stroke symptoms. My case identified gaps in the hospital’s processes. It highlighted the mistakes that were made and helped to show this hospital and the doctors what needs to be done to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Using the civil justice system allowed me closure to this difficult time in my life, and has given me the resources to help me live my life the best I can.