The Silent Treatment

Because state law allows hospitals to keep their mistakes secret, James Williams may never know exactly how his wife went in for routine surgery and came out in a coma

 

He and his wife checked into the Fairview-University Medical Center's Riverside campus at about 9:30 a.m. on April 11, James Williams recalls. Sharon's surgery was scheduled for midday. While she was waiting, she sat with her husband, their pastor, Lesley Ford, and his wife Rosella. Ford, a wiry man whose soft voice has a soothing, almost Southern twang, remembers it as a peaceful, even buoyant time. The four laughed and joked, talked about the Williamses' upcoming vacation in Hawaii. And they prayed together.

"It was a happy time. There was no shadow of an indication of anything. This was just a routine thing that happened thousands of times," Ford recalls. "It was a good time, seeing her smiling, holding her hand, praying with her. That was the last thing we did."

The Williamses are a religious family, having gone through a "spiritual revitalization" in the mid-Nineties. They belong to St. Paul's Living Word Church, a nondenominational, charismatic congregation. Until last April Sharon Williams even worked there, having chosen in 1995 to leave her own 12-year career at Honeywell to be a receptionist at the church, to do more meaningful work.

Williams stares straight ahead as he relives that April day, his recollection so vivid he instinctively recoils from its sting. It was around noon when Sharon was taken into the operating room. The Fords left to spend time with two other women from the church who were having surgery that same day. James Williams went into a waiting room. He expected to see Sharon again in about three hours. And so he waited. Three hours came and went, but Williams was not alarmed. Probably the procedure started late, he reasoned. Periodically, Williams and the families of other patients would each check a computerized guide in the room that allows family members to monitor the status of patients.

After three and a half hours, Williams noted that the monitors listed Sharon as out of surgery, but didn't explain where she was. The recovery-room volunteers could tell him nothing. Neither could the nurses outside the operating room. The minutes ticked by, and after four hours and no information, panic had taken hold. "It did not feel right," he remembers. He picked up the phone intending to call someone, anyone who might have some information. A woman he did not know came down the hall toward him. "Are you Mr. Williams?" she asked. "Can we go to a consultation room and talk?"

There had been complications, the woman told him. She didn't know the specific problem. "I'm already nervous, champing at the bit," Williams says, speaking in present tense as he relives the events moment by moment. "We're sitting here in this room and I know something's wrong. It seems like another day has gone by." The door opened and five people entered: a doctor, his assistant, two others, a chaplain. "When I see the chaplain, I'm on edge. They told me there was a complication in the recovery room, that Sharon had stopped breathing."

Williams's mind was spinning. "This can't possibly be happening," he thought to himself. "This can't be real." Aloud he said, "I want to see my wife immediately." The entourage walked him to the room where Sharon lay. "When I saw her, I almost had a heart attack. She was spastic; her eyes were all over. It was the scariest thing I'd ever seen," he remembers. "This was my baby. She looked really bad." As the doctors prepared Sharon for transport to Fairview's University campus, where she would be better cared for in the intensive-care unit, Williams tried to comfort his wife. Through tears he prayed over her, told her everything would be all right.

But things were far from all right. When the doctors at the second hospital reviewed Sharon's chart, Williams says, they were outraged. Someone had failed to perform his or her job, they told him. "They said this should never have happened. They were absolutely hostile about it. Their anger fed into me."

Through the swirl of fear, Williams focused on only a few concerns: "My wife, her condition, how she got into her condition, and how we could get her out." Yet getting information about what had happened proved difficult; what he learned during those first days was about all he was going to be told. Engulfed in his own questions, the lack of answers launched Williams on a quest to find out what had gone wrong--and why.

 

Anyone who has ever suffered an illness--or watched someone endure one--knows that medicine is not a perfect science. But even if the results of treatments can sometimes be unexpected, we expect to see clear documentation of the steps that were taken that led to the outcome. As he tried to trace what had happened to his wife in the recovery room, James Williams faced obstacle after obstacle.

"We wanted to know exactly what happened," Williams says. The doctors and administrators at Fairview-Riverside repeatedly told him they were looking into the situation, he recalls. "They were allegedly having investigations. It became clear that they knew what happened, but they couldn't come up with a story that would make them not liable." Again and again, Williams says, Fairview-Riverside promised explanations, but those promises went unfulfilled.

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