The family of a woman who died from a flesh-eating bacterial infection last year is now suing two local doctors and the hospital where she was admitted, alleging that she wasn't diagnosed or treated quickly enough to save her life.
Carmen Alexander, a popular 43-year-old teacher at Open Alternative School, died Feb. 21, 2012, just two days after being admitted to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. Her death was linked to a serious bacterial infection known as necrotizing fasciitis, which can spread rapidly through the body, destroying its soft tissue.
Those close to Alexander expressed shock at the diagnosis, since she was a previously active and healthy adult. The family's lawsuit was filed on June 10, alleging medical negligence and wrongful death, and asking for a jury trial.
The plaintiffs in the case are Rebeca, John and Alexander Hsu, Alexander's children, who are still minors, along with their guardian, Vadim Hsu. Their complaint, filed by Newport Beach-based firm Lopez McHugh LLP, lists Drs. John Wheelock and Sylvia Kim, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Cottage Health System as defendants. Wheelock, a radiologist, and Kim, an emergency medicine physician, provided care to Alexander from the time she was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 19 through her Feb. 21 death, the lawsuit states.
Cottage Health System officials would not comment on Alexander's case specifically, but said patient safety is of utmost concern.
"Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital holds safe, effective patient care as its highest priority," Chris Ponce, vice president for advancement and public affairs, said in a statement emailed to Noozhawk on Wednesday.
"The hospital and its medical staff do everything possible to protect patients from any kind of harm. Any allegation of patient harm is taken extremely seriously, and we have rigorous procedures in place to thoroughly investigate every allegation in a timely manner."
Alexander's family says medical negligence resulted when the defendants failed to adequately diagnose and treat Alexander for necrotizing fasciitis in a timely manner. Early diagnosis and referral for aggressive surgical treatment prior to the development of signs that the infection has spread to the bloodstream are essential for survival, the lawsuit states.
The earlier the patient can be treated with surgery and broad spectrum antibiotics, the greater their chance of survival. Alexander was admitted on Feb. 19 with what the lawsuit calls "classic signs of NF."
"Her symptoms included worsening localized chest pain that was disproportionate to any physical finding, swelling of the chest, nausea, vomiting and dehydration" but that the defendants discharged her the same day "without making any effort to rule out NF," according to the lawsuit.
Alexander returned to the Cottage Hospital emergency room at 7 a.m. Feb. 20, with worsening chest pain, increased swelling, shortness of breath, dizziness, dropping blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, according to the suit.
The lawsuit states that, three hours later, a chest tube was placed in Alexander's chest, where "large amounts of pus and fluid were drained." She was diagnosed with acute sepsis and was admitted to the medical ICU at 11:30 a.m. with a presumed diagnosis of pneumonia.
The attorneys representing her family say Alexander's record shows she continued to decline over the next six hours, and was finally diagnosed with NF.
"Unfortunately, the diagnosis and treatment came too late for Ms. Alexander," the complaint states. "The disease had been allowed to spread too far.
"Despite having over 35 percent of her total body surface removed, she died on Feb. 21, 2012, from septic shock and acute renal and respiratory failure as caused by NF."
In a response filed July 12, attorneys for Cottage Hospital denied the allegations. Reback, McAndrews, Kjar, Warford, Stockalper & Moore LLP is representing the hospital, and the firm's response states that the "plaintiffs' own negligence was the sole and proximate cause of the accident and any injuries they sustained," and that they "did not exercise ordinary care on plaintiffs'own behalf."
The case was in court Friday, and Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne sustained a demurrer put forward by one of the physicians in the case.
Kim took issue with the medical negligence complaint against her, saying the plaintiffs lacked the standing to pursue it on their own behalf since they were not treated as patients.
Sterne agreed with Kim’s demurrer but will allow attorneys for the family time to clarify their claim, including whether a survival claim is being asserted, and to add a proper party plaintiff if it is.
The plaintiffs have until Sept. 10 to amend their claim.