June 18, 2008

One simple way to lower your risk of turning into a statistic is to bring a family member or friend to act as your advocate. “When my mother goes into the hospital, I’m petrified, so I watch things quite closely,” says Peter Pronovost, MD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Curtis Lindell, 49, wouldn’t be alive had it not been for the vigilance of his wife, Lisa, 39, during the months he spent in a Houston hospital in 2003 following an accidental electrocution that caused second- and third-degree burns. “He was getting worse, and I kept saying, ‘You’re missing something and he’s dying,’ ” she recalls. One doctor finally did listen, and Curtis was rushed into gallbladder surgery—which was made far more complicated by advanced gangrene. It would have been much less serious had a doctor paid attention sooner.

But the couple’s saga was just beginning. After five weeks, Curtis developed a life-threatening lung infection while on a ventilator. “My sister researched the drugs to treat the infection, and she and I asked, ‘Is he on Imipenem?’ ” Lisa says, referring to a drug used to fight the often-resistant bacteria. “We asked for an infectious-disease specialist. Finally, after a week, [a specialist came] and ordered Imipenem.” Lisa also watched the potentially deadly bedsores (contracting bedsores in a hospital is a “never event”) on her husband’s head and heel, turning him regularly to make sure the sores could heal. She had to clean Curtis and change his bed, because “they would leave him for hours a day lying in his own waste,” she recalls. “I knew I had to stay on top of it or he would die.”

Alicia Cole of Sherman Oaks, California, who also experienced serious errors, agrees: “Never, never—in large, capital letters with exclamation points—go into the hospital even for a minor procedure alone.” If you can’t cobble together nonstop coverage by family and friends, consider one of the new patient-advocacy businesses popping up across the nation, like Patient Care Advocates in Tucson.

How to be your own advocate
No one can single-handedly shift the culture of a hospital to make it safer, especially when she’s ill, but each of us can do our best to insist that patients are made part of the process. “Patients have more knowledge about their diseases, so they have to be partners in deciding what happens to their bodies,” Pronovost says.

Pay attention, ask questions, and, above all, trust your gut. “If you’re worried about anything, if something feels or looks wrong, you should speak up,” says Martin Hatlie of Partnership for Patient Safety. “I hear patient after patient say, ‘I wish I had said something.’ ”

Next: The Dennis Quaid Case

Back to Your Guide to Preventing Medical Mistakes Intro

By Lorie A. Parch
Additional reporting by Kimberly Holland and Brittani Tingle

Related Links:
How to Avoid Becoming a Medical Mistake
Skills to Use in the Hospital
Five Surgeries to Avoid

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