Woman Says Hospital Declared Living Husband Dead
(CBS News) — The startling case of a man who lived for hours after he was declared dead is set to go to trial in April. Michael Cleveland was a 46-year-old married father with no known history of heart problems – until he went intoone night in 2014. His wife, Tammy, cannot erase the nightmare of her husband’s final hours.
“Can you imagine what it must have been like for him? To listen to the people I should be able to trust, tell him, try to convince me and my family that he’s dead, and he’s laying there alive?” Tammy, in tears, told cardiologist and CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula.
Michael collapsed while shopping for dinner in a Buffalo-area supermarket. Medics performed CPR and shocked his heart, then rushed him to nearby DeGraff Memorial Hospital. Less than an hour later, Michael was pronounced dead by ER doctor Gregory Perry.
“When you first walked in the room, what was your first observation of Michael?” Dr. Narula asked.
“That Michael wasn’t dead. He was following me with his eyes. It wasn’t just an involuntary thing. I mean, he looked right at me,” Tammy said. She said he was also trying to hug her.
“He brought his legs up on the gurney, knees bent, flat footed. I mean, he was breathing,” Tammy said.
She claims that over the next several hours, her husband continued showing signs of life and his family repeatedly asked medical staff to check him. His chest was moving up and down, Tammy said.
While Dr. Perry entered the room twice, the lawsuit says of those first visits, he did not perform a physical exam that could confirm life or death. Tammy said the doctor “never put a hand on him and he never put a stethoscope on him.”
“Did he hook him up to a monitor of do an EKG?” Dr. Narula asked.
“Never,” Tammy said. “No. And Michael had that tube down his throat.”
“What was his explanation for why Michael was still moving?” Dr. Narula asked.
“He said that Michael is only 46 years old. He said that he’s got a lot of life… to expel out of his body,” Tammy said.
A coroner came to remove the body. According to his pre-trial testimony, he was startled by what he saw and called out for nurses to get Dr. Perry.
“Dead people don’t move,” the coroner said in the deposition, adding, “‘He needs to go in there and check his pulse.'”
Two hours and 40 minutes after Michael had been pronounced dead, Dr. Perry examined him and found a pulse. He was alive. Medical tests showed Michael had suffered a heart attack. He was transferred to Buffalo General Medical Center. Doctors there performed a procedure to open a blocked artery, but it was too late. At 10:48 the next morning, Michael died.
“I need closure in that I need accountability,” Tammy said, crying.
Dr. Perry and DeGraff Memorial Hospital would not comment, citing the pending lawsuit. DeGraff Memorial has said in legal filings that it followed all medical standards and required procedures.
Dr. Perry said in his deposition that he did check for a pulse in those first two visits and found no signs of life. But on the third visit, he said, Michael’s condition was “vastly different.”
The doctor at Buffalo General who opened the blocked artery stated in his deposition that Michael was “too sick” and “he would never have survived,” even without the delay at DeGraff.
CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman says the effect of that delay will be a critical issue for the jury.
“You’re going to have the defense experts who say… ‘They did everything they could, and then he was pronounced dead. And no matter – even if that was in error, and we know it was in error because he became alive – that that would have made no difference. He was going to die anyway.’ Plaintiff’s experts are going to say, ‘Of course there was a chance that he would have survived. He was only 46 years old,'” Klieman said.
“Do you carry guilt that you were supposed to be Michael’s voice and you couldn’t do enough for him?” Narula asked Tammy.
“I trusted the medical field at the time. Yeah, I feel horrible,” Tammy responded.
On Friday, a New York judge allowed Tammy’s lawsuit to proceed, but reportedly trimmed her claims and denied her request for punitive damages.
It’s hard for any doctor who wasn’t there to comment on this particular case. But that being said, in general, Dr. Narula said that when someone has a heart attack due to a blocked artery, every minute counts because the heart muscle dies very quickly without oxygen. She also advised people who might find themselves in a similar situation as Tammy to escalate things to the chain of command at the hospital by going to the attending physician in charge of the unit the patient is in. Dr. Narula said there is also always an administrator on call like a chief medical officer or an executive director.