I’ve written about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and her death before, and I’ve said that it was a blessing that she died when and how she did. While I don’t take that back, the manner of her death has raised some important questions for me.
My grandmother was diagnosed with a viral pneumonia several days before her death. Her blood oxygen saturation dropped low, she was placed on oxygen, and her vital signs were monitored every few hours. Keeping in mind that she was unable to express her needs or symptoms—incoherent in her native Russian, let alone English—this was a dangerous situation. Grandma continued to have visible trouble breathing, and nothing was done. She was not placed on a monitor, written a prescription for antibiotics (to ward off further bacterial infection as is common in someone her age), or hospitalized. My family was not informed of her condition.
She died of a heart attack caused by the viral pneumonia several days later.
Her death was, very likely, preventable. A monitor would have shown the heart attack; a hospital would have been able to provide care much faster than the nursing home did. Adequate respiratory support would have protected her heart. Leaving her to essentially suffocate caused her even more pain.
Now, this seems like an open and shut case, doesn’t it? We take the nursing home to court, win a couple hundred thousand dollars for wrongful death, and my grandfather gets to go to a private nursing home where they might actually take care of him.
Except it’s not.
See, it turns out that receiving compensation is a more complex process than we thought. I figure, you kill someone, you pay for killing someone, right? Actually, the decision takes into account the person’s age, life expectancy had they gotten proper care, and—get this—future income. So if someone were to kill a healthy 25-year-old, I can argue that they could have worked for 50 years, made $100,000 a year, and so therefore I should be compensated $5,000,000.
For my grandmother, who had no income and a limited life expectancy even without the pneumonia—she had late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease—the payout wouldn’t even be enough to cover the court fees. While lawyer after lawyer said we would win the case, they also advised us not to take action.
If I were to shoot an old woman, I would go to jail for the same amount of time as if I were to shoot a young woman. Perhaps, I would be vilified even more because of how defenseless the older woman was. Why is it not the same for medicine? Do we not value the sick? Do we protect hospitals too much, at the expense of patients? The results are the same—a death that shouldn’t have occurred—but the consequences are drastically different. This is reflective of a system that needs to change.
For now, my family will be left to grieve my grandmother’s disease and her death. And while for her, death has brought relief, I remain concerned about other patients.
There are plenty of elderly people in nursing homes who want to live, and who die the way my grandmother did due to medical negligence. I imagine their grandchildren looking forward to a visit that doesn’t come, their children having no legal recourse.