One might say each life is precious, and you can’t put a price on it. One would be wrong. I found this out when my father died, and we discovered that his life was shortened by inept care and one very wrong procedure that took him from us before his time. He did not go peacefully into that good night, but choking and fighting to hang on just a little longer.
On investigating nursing home neglect, wrongful death, and medical malpractice, I learned that his life was worth exactly nothing, legally speaking. If a person is young, rich, and/or with many years of productive life ahead, and if that person, or any person, lives in a state where live is valued and medical and nursing home personnel are held accountable for their mistakes, a life might be worth quite a lot. If one is old, middle class or less, and lives in Texas, like my 89-year old dad, it doesn’t matter that obvious mistakes were made, that he was so neglected by nursing home staff that he arrived back at the hospital so dehydrated and malnourished the doctor didn’t expect him to make it through the night. The doctor, I’ve been told, was furious with the nursing home, but 4 days later he was sent back there, without anyone asking us. A few hours later, he was back in CCU, a few days after that – you guessed it, back to the nursing home, even though he pleaded with the doctor not to send him, he was not strong enough to go back to “rehab.” Whether that was due to the doctor’s decision that he WAS strong enough, or whether, more likely, it was Medicare’s insistence on freeing his hospital bed, I don’t know. What I do know that is he went to the hospital with a broken elbow just before Thanksgiving, talking and walking and doing well for a man of his years, and over the next month he got weaker and weaker until he rarely even woke up. I saw him on Dec. 23rd, and was delighted to see him not only awake, but sitting up in a wheelchair. I’d been praying for just one more Christmas, but that prayer was not answered. Early the next morning, Christmas Eve, shortly after my nephew spent an hour watching him sleep, struggling to breath, after watching someone on the staff do something my nephew thought was odd, and was told “Oh, he’ll be fine in a little while,” we got a call to rush to the hospital. Mother already knew what the news would be. When the ER doctor gently told her “we did all we could, but we couldn’t save him,” she said “I know.”
We coped as best we could. We thought maybe it was not a bad thing that he left us when he did, because most of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren had come to celebrate Christmas and got to see him one last time. We knew he was getting weak, and his mind was slowly fading away. We wished we could have been with him at the end, and we knew he’d been treated badly, but we accepted it.
Then the death certificate came. Instead of writing some vague cause of death like “heart failure,” the doctor spelled out 3 conditions that were directly attributable to the treatment and lack thereof he’d received. We were stunned, and Mother was heartbroken all over again. She wanted to sue, to make sure that what happened to our loved one and our family would not happen again. I thought it was an open and shut case. I thought wrong. I’m a librarian, and I know how to research. I found similar cases in other states where the surviving family members were awarded punitive and actual damages. One in Arkansas a few years ago was practically identical to ours, and the family received several million dollars (less the 40% to the lawyers, of course) But Texas is not Arkansas, or California, and the medical lobby is very powerful.
I started looking for a lawyer to take our case, confident I would find one who agreed it was a strong one. First I asked a friend, who has a very successful practice specializing in this kind of case. He listened, he checked with medical and legal professionals, and kindly told me he couldn’t take the case because there was little chance we’d win, and he didn’t want us to suffer any more then we already had by going through the pain of reliving his last weeks to no avail. By then I’d figured it out – at 89, his life expectancy was less than zero. It didn’t matter that he’d been taking care of my invalid mother, that he had a good life and many people who loved him, legally speaking his life was worthless.
My friend told me to seek a second opinion, so I tried one of those big television firms that promise to be on the side of the little guy, to fight and hammer and win … When I talked to a representative, I mentioned it started with Dad tripping and falling – “Where did he fall?” the guy asked, and I could virtually see “trip and fall case” lighting up his face. He was very disappointed when I said he fell at his home, but he politely listened and asked more questions. A couple of hours later I was informed they were so sorry for our loss but they couldn’t help us. That pretty much showed me the lay of the land, but a couple of weeks later, when I was visiting my mother in Dallas, I saw an add for a “Christian law firm” that made all the big promises the others did, but it was even better because they had CHRISTIAN values! I sent an e-mail to one in Dallas, and never even got a response.
It’s been almost 3 months since our dear daddy, husband, PaPa, uncle, friend, Christian, war hero Sterling L. Hornsby has been gone. We’ve given up on the lawsuit idea, but when we feel strong enough to go through the hurdles we will file a complaint against the nursing home. I decided to get his medical records so we could document what he went through, and did you know, if there’s anything potentially incriminating or derogatory in those records, the hospital, the nursing home, and the doctors don’t have to give that part to you!
What’s the point of this post? These are words I needed to put down in writing, and I hope this might prove of value to others as a cautionary tale. If you have a loved one in the hospital, or – especially in a nursing home – and if that loved one can’t speak for him or herself, try your best to be there as much as you can. I still regret leaving Daddy the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when I could see his breathing was bad and he couldn’t be woken up. I mentioned it to the nurse, who assured me he was fine, but after I left for Houston he was rushed back to the hospital as nearly dead as he could be. As it turned out, maybe it was good that I left, because the only time he got attention was when one of us pointed out something seemed wrong. Anyway, when I got back to Houston, I discovered the bout of “food poisoning” my mother had Thanksgiving night and the next 2 days wasn’t food poisoning, but the intestinal virus my dad picked up during his first hospital stay. It knocked me for a loop for 4 days, and I realized why he’d lost all his strength so quickly. I recovered, as did Mother, my brother, my mother’s nurse, and her neighbor, but he never did.
I wonder if I’d gone up and stayed with him that first week I could have made sure he had food and water, and he wouldn’t have gotten in such bad shape, but we were told he was doing fine. DO NOT believe that! The nursing staff might hate you, but you have the right to make sure they’re doing what they are supposed to be doing, and telling you the truth about the patient’s condition. Ask questions, and keep asking until you get the answers you need. Sure, I know, they don’t make much money, but that is no excuse for causing harm to the helpless people who depend on them for their very life. I always tried to speak kindly to them, and to the hospital nurses, telling them to take good care of him because “he’s the only Daddy I’ve got.” It wasn’t enough.
I guess I’ve said as much as I can say, and my heart feels a little lighter for having said it. Unlike most of my posts, there is no humor, no happy ending, to this story. For those who read this, I pray that you and your family will never have to find out that your loved one’s life is worthless, according to the law.