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Family sues Sharp Grossmont Hospital

Union Tribune (2008-08-28) Cheryl Clark

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More Info: Grossmont Healthcare Board

Lawsuit alleges cover-up of death

By Cheryl Clark


August 28, 2008 LA MESA – Caregivers at Sharp Grossmont Hospital incorrectly adjusted the breathing tube of finance author Harvey Houtkin after his tonsil surgery July 25, then denied that they did so in an alleged cover-up of his suffocation death, according to a lawsuit.

Bloomberg News

Harvey Houtkin, who died in July at Sharp Grossmont, is seen in a 1999 photo.
Officials of the La Mesa hospital denied to family members that a respiratory therapist had moved the tube in his airway while he was in the recovery room shortly after surgery, “despite clear evidence in the medical records about this maneuver,” according to a lawsuit filed by family members.

Sharp officials disagree with the allegations. “We are confident there have been no cover-ups or misrepresentations on the part of any Sharp Health Care representatives,” said spokesman John Cihomsky.

Sharp Grossmont officials said they reported Houtkin's death to state officials as an adverse event, as required by law. That triggered a state investigation, which concluded that there were no deficiencies in Grossmont's care of Houtkin.

Dr. Glenn Wagner, San Diego County's medical examiner, said his review of Houtkin's records and interviews with hospital staff members “support the hospital version of the incident,” which was that Houtkin died as a result of an abscess near his tonsils.

Wagner labeled Houtkin's death “natural,” although he said he awaits results from a private autopsy of Houtkin's body that the family ordered.

Yesterday, Dr. Bruce Fagel, the Los Angeles attorney who filed the family's lawsuit, released that autopsy report. It blamed Houtkin's death on “asphyxia due to airway obstruction due to a peritonsillar abscess.” Fagel said that autopsy bolsters the family's case.

The suit, filed Monday in San Diego Superior Court, names surgeon Dr. John Howard Taylor; anesthesiologist Dr. David R. Diehl; radiologist Dr. Mary Grebenc; intensive care specialist Dr. Barzan Abdulla Mohedin; and nurse Maryann Cone, in addition to Sharp Health Care and Sharp Grossmont.

Houtkin had several other health issues, including obesity, diabetes, renal insufficiency, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the autopsy, but none of those illnesses caused his death, Fagel said.

“Mr. Houtkin's airway was so swollen that it was blocked below the level of the tip of the endotracheal tube, as a direct result of the tube being pulled out 5 cm by the respiratory therapist,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit blames Taylor for listing the cause of death on the death certificate as the abscess near his tonsils and his “medical history,” rather than movement of the tube by the respiratory therapist. Thus, “the San Diego County Coroner declined the opportunity to perform an autopsy and investigation into the death of Mr. Houtkin,” the lawsuit says.

“As a result of this attempt by officials of Sharp Health Care to cover-up their obvious medical errors and to deceive the family about the true cause of Mr. Houtkin's death, Mr. Houtkin's famly was forced to obtain the services of a private pathologist to perform an autopsy.”

The litigation comes as the hospital makes extensive quality changes after a federal inquiry found that quality problems contributed to three preventable deaths in March and April.

Houtkin, 59, of Aventura, Fla., had been staying at a weight-loss spa in La Jolla, where his diet consisted of vegetables and juices. In three weeks, he had lost 25 pounds, the autopsy report says.

After a sore throat worsened, he sought care from Taylor, who diagnosed him with an abscess near his tonsils and recommended surgery, Fagel said.

In the recovery room, Houtkin remained ventilated with a tube from his nose into his trachea to a point beyond the area in his throat that was bleeding and swollen after the removal of his tonsils. An X-ray confirmed that the tube was correctly positioned, the lawsuit says.

At 7 p.m., radiologist Grebenc phoned the recovery area and “told the (recovery unit) nurse that the endotracheal tube needs to be repositioned 4-5 cm (centimeters) . . . ” but did not discuss with his doctors, Diehl, Taylor or Mohedin, the lawsuit says.

By 8:30 p.m., a respiratory therapist, at the direction of a nurse, moved Houtkin's tube 5 centimeters, an act that “showed a complete breach in the basic standards of medical practice,” the suit alleges.

In the next 10 minutes, Houtkin was moved to the intensive care unit. But because his endotracheal tube was moved 5 centimeters in his throat, “Mr. Houtkin's swollen airway had collapsed,” the lawsuit says.
Cheryl Clark: (619) 542-4573;

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Title Family sues Sharp Grossmont Hospital
Publisher Union Tribune
Author Cheryl Clark
Pub Date 2008-08-28
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Keywords Grossmont Healthcare Board
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Topic revision: r2 - 16 Sep 2009, RaymondLutz
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