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Nov. 29, 2007

Malpractice Victims Deserve Right to Seek Justice Through Courts

Statement of Erin Howard, Northport, N.Y.

I’m here today to tell you about how a family ski trip turned into a tragedy. In addition to the loss of a beloved member of our family, this story is tragic because his death was so preventable. Nothing will bring my brother back, and at this point our only hope is to seek answers, justice and accountability through our courts. Any effort to curtail the rights of those who have been victimized by inexcusable medical errors would simply victimize them a second time.

Our nightmare began when my brother Kevin Deane, a healthy, athletic, six-foot-two firefighter, was seriously injured in a skiing accident in Colorado. We were grateful to the doctors in Colorado who, after performing necessary surgery, had him standing within a matter of days. Our despair turned to optimism for Kevin’s full recovery. Our focus then turned to getting Kevin into a rehabilitation facility that would maximize his chances to resume the full and active life he had led up to that point.

To that end, we decided to bring him back to New York. Our decision was influenced to a great extent by our belief that Mt. Sinai Hospital was a first-class rehabilitation facility with state-of-the-art resources. We were so convinced that Mt. Sinai was the best place for him that we scraped together the $17,000 that it cost to transport Kevin by air ambulance to New York.

Upon Kevin’s arrival at Mt. Sinai on Friday night, he was examined by a physician, who assured us that Kevin would be well taken care by his associates over the weekend. Regrettably, that turned out to be a false statement.

When we next saw Kevin on the following day, we were concerned by what we saw. Kevin was in significant pain, he was having difficulty swallowing, he was very agitated, and he was on a gurney in a hallway. Despite the fact that X-rays were taken, we learned that the results were not communicated to those who needed to know what they showed.

Among the things we didn’t know was that not one attending physician looked at my brother all day on Saturday, and no physician ever looked at him on Sunday, despite his deteriorating condition and worsening complaints.

We now know that my brother’s pain, agitation, difficulty swallowing and other problems were caused by hardware in his spine eroding through his esophagus. Left all alone in the hospital, Kevin essentially drowned in his own blood and died at about 2:45 a.m. on Monday morning. At this point we are demanding answers as to how this kind of neglect and indifference could occur in New York City, at a hospital like Mt. Sinai, in 2007.

The Department of Health later found that the attending physician who was supposed to be checking Kevin that weekend didn’t know he was on duty. The agency found multiple violations of other regulations that we believe contributed to Kevin’s death.

We now have no choice other than to place our faith in a justice system that we hope will get us the answers that we seek, and accountability for that which the staff of Mt. Sinai Hospital has so cruelly taken from our brother. Each working day, Kevin was willing to put his life on the line for others, yet his life was so needlessly lost.

If the right to seek accountability for the kind of care my brother received were to be curtailed, where would the incentive be to improve the deficiencies that led to his death? Given the number of serious medical mistakes made each year in this country under the present system, I shudder to think what would happen if the wrongdoers were immunized from responsibility for their actions.

While we can’t bring my brother back, we will do what we can to make sure that this doesn’t happen to another family.

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