sprained ankle to death did emergency room errors kill this woman

Often when discussing serious medical mistakes, we think of failure to diagnose cancer or another life threatening illness, or perhaps the administration of a contraindicated medication or a surgeon’s negligent error during a complicated procedure.

The case of a young woman named Anna — who died as the apparent result of an emergency room’s failure to properly treat her sprained ankle — points out that sometimes even relatively minor injuries, if not taken seriously by medical professionals, can put lives at risk unnecessarily.

In the days leading up to Anna’s death, she visited three hospitals complaining of severe leg pain as the result of a sprained ankle. Perhaps sensing that something was wrong beyond a simple sprain, when Anna arrived at the last hospital she refused to leave the emergency room without treatment. When Anna became insistent that someone take her pain seriously, hospital officials called the police.

When the police arrived, a doctor said that Anna was healthy enough to be locked up. That potential emergency room mistake cost Anna her life. She died in a jail cell a short time later, and an autopsy determined that her death was caused by complications of her sprained ankle.

Blood clots formed in Anna’s leg as a result of the sprained ankle. The blood clots migrated to her lungs and killed her. It is important to understand two things: 1) the dangers of pulmonary embolism (as this phenomenon is known to physicians) are well understood, and 2) doctors are expected to conduct a differential diagnosis to rule out the most serious possible causes for symptoms, such as the severe pain Anna was suffering.

Although all the facts are yet not known regarding this case, if a patient presents an injury that is known to cause blood clots and reports pain consistent with deep vein thrombosis — a known cause of pulmonary embolism — and doctors fail to provide acceptable standards of care, this can represent clear medical malpractice.

Health care professionals from the hospital are defending their actions. They insist that the staff followed medical guidelines and performed the appropriate tests. The hospital released a statement saying, “Unfortunately, even with appropriate testing using sophisticated technology, blood clots can still be undetected in a small number of cases.”

Although it may be true that the blood clots can go undetected, that does not necessarily relieve the emergency room staff of all responsibility in regard to their choice to have Anna sent to jail rather than provide treatment and monitor her condition for signs of pulmonary embolism — a condition that, if caught early, can often be treated with so-called “clot-buster” drugs.

Sprained ankles hurt, but Anna’s severe, seemingly abnormal pain could have alerted the health care workers that there was something more serious at play. Because the emergency room workers failed to investigate her health fully and take all due precautions to prevent or address a rare but known complication, a woman lost her life.

Ultimately, a court would need to decide whether Anna’s treatment — or lack thereof — represents medical malpractice in the legal sense, and whether officials at the jail where Anna was sent are responsible for her death while she was in their care. But you don’t have to be a physician or an attorney or an expert on health care policy to recognize that something is wrong with our system when an innocent person like Anna is sent to jail for demanding someone take her seriously, only to later die from complications of a relatively minor injury.

Source: msnbc.com, “Hospital: Mom booted from ER who died in jail was treated appropriately,” The Associated Press, March 29, 2012

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