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Family, hospital settle after mother’s fatal fall in operating room

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / October 14, 2009

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The family of an 86-year-old Dorchester woman who died after she fell from an operating table following hip surgery has settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Boston Medical Center.

The settlement halted a trial that was set for today and saved Boston University’s teaching hospital a potentially embarrassing trip to Suffolk Superior Court. The family’s lawyer, Andrew C. Meyer Jr., said the hospital agreed to pay $900,000.

Meyer said the case exposed gaps in operating room procedures and hopefully will prevent future tragedies.

“The settlement was a recognition of the kind of mistakes that happen all too often in our hospitals,’’ said Meyer, of Lubin & Meyer, a Boston law firm. “It’s gratifying to see that the family was able to receive exposure for this horrific event - and not to sweep it under the rug - to ensure that policies are changed so that this will not happen again.’’

Boston Medical Center would not comment on the case.

Catherine O’Donnell died Oct. 13, 2007, seven days after she suffered a massive head injury in a fall in the operating room as she was being prepared for transfer to her hospital bed. The fall fractured her skull and caused severe internal bleeding.

Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit last year, contending that staff in the operating room was too busy and preoccupied and delivered substandard care to O’Donnell, causing her to fall. They also contended that the hospital was insensitive, first informing them that the hip surgery had gone well before telling them of the serious head injury.

Reached by phone yesterday, Tom O’Donnell said his family sued because they wanted to raise awareness about patient safety in cases such as his mother’s. The family is relieved that the case is over, he said.

“It’s actually two years to the day of her death,’’ said Tom O’Donnell. “It’s comforting that in her memory we have a positive impact on patient safety.’’

O’Donnell broke her hip while turning to get into bed in her first-floor home in Dorchester and was rushed to the emergency room at Boston Medical Center, where doctors determined that her hip was broken and that she would need surgery.

Surgeons repaired her left hip one day later. After the procedure, O’Donnell, who was still under anesthesia and had a breathing tube in her mouth, slipped and fell as medical personnel prepared to transfer her to her hospital bed, according to a joint pretrial memorandum, which lays out the case.

In their lawsuit, O’Donnell’s three children - Thomas F. O’Donnell, Patricia M. Lynch, and Anne F. O’Neill - said their mother’s death was a “direct result of the substandard care and treatment rendered’’ by the medical staff in the operating room.

The lawsuit named four defendants who were allegedly in the operating room at the time: Dr. Carlos Guzman, an anesthesiology resident; Dr. John Pryor, an orthopedic resident; and two nurses, Harvinder Miller and Ingrid Rush.

At the time of the accident, O’Donnell was lying on a special surgical table designed for hip surgeries, according to the court document.

The table has boots to immobilize patients’ feet and an opening near the base of the torso that enables doctors to take X-rays. A nurse, identified in the court document as Miller, removed the belt on the surgical table in preparation for moving her.

As Miller walked to the other side of O’Donnell, she saw “the patient slip off the surgical table, and was unable to do anything to prevent the fall,’’ according to the court document.

The state Department of Public Health investigated the case in November 2007, determining that the fall led to O’Donnell’s death, and cited deficiencies in procedure. The hospital’s own analysis found that the operating room staff was busy or preoccupied and that the safety belt’s removal was not verbally communicated, the document said.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.