Our Hospitals Can Do Better

The Atlanta hospital where my son died last month is evaluating some of its practices in the NICU.

It’s hardly a victory, it won’t bring him back, and it doesn’t make me feel any better about what happened. Maybe there is some solace in hoping the hospital won’t treat other parents coping with such a tragedy in the future with the same cavalier attitude I believe they afforded us.

We’ll never know. After all, this is the same hospital that considers his death to be an “untoward event.”

It took a lot of aggravation to bring the hospital to this point. I believe they came begrudgingly.

My son died in the hospital’s NICU. It remains my firm belief the hospital does not care about his death or us. After about a dozen phone calls with different people at the hospital, I feel confident in saying they still do not understand what our concern is.

I say this because hospital officials heard what they want to hear, not everything I had to say. In fact, they still haven’t heard everything I have to say. They cut me off from providing more information to the chief medical officer, asking that I instead speak to the risk manager, a person who is essentially a non-practicing lawyer.

Among the “suggestions” the hospital is evaluating is whether people who enter the NICU wash their hands, whether food should be allowed in such a sensitive environment and whether film crews should be admitted to the NICU. They also indicated they need to do a better job communicating with parents in the NICU.

Hospital brass seemed to be unaware the hospital’s marketing team invited a film crew to film a documentary in the NICU or that I observed nurses enter without washing hands. They seem to have no way to confirm parents or other visitors wash their hands.

The pathetic part is that they needed to hear that from a parent before taking action. Are they that out of touch with patient care, bedside manner and whether protocols are actually followed? I am afraid what the answer likely is.

I told the hospital’s chief medical officer his institution does a poor job talking to parents to understand the situation, what they saw and what questions they have. “I think your point about talking to the families is a very good one,” the chief medical officer told me on Sept. 7.

He can take action. He should take action.

Yet, in the 40-plus days since my son died, no one at the hospital has ever asked for my input. They still don’t understand my concerns, yet they send letter after letter saying they are investigating, then apologize via email for sending such a letter.

Then, there are the contradictions.

The chief medical officer in an email this week said, “We have one more internal meeting to review all that we’ve identified and assure that the follow up action plans are in place.”

Action plans sound interesting. Particularly when a hospital keeps telling me they did no wrong and found no changes that need to be made. In fact, they’ve done such an amazing job, the head of the NICU gloated on a call how well he sleeps at night.

Must be nice. I’ve done a lot of thinking and soul-searching over the past six weeks. Perhaps that’s because I can’t sleep at night. Maybe it’s because my son died. In your hospital. Perhaps if you dropped your smug tone for a moment, you might show some compassion.

When I asked what are the action plans, the senior director of risk management in a carefully crafted email said, “there is no action plan, per se.”

Two emails in two days from two different people. One contradiction. And, they wonder why I view what the hospital says with suspicion.

It took 37 days and numerous phone calls to shed light on the issue. If not for the many phone calls during that timeframe, they would have done nothing. I still believe there is more about what happened, but my wife and I will never know for sure.

Frankly, if the hospital instituted one change, I would suggest it be that they listen. It’s amazing what they might learn if they stopped congratulating themselves on a job well done and understood what their patients heard and witnessed.

I doubt the hospital will ever tell us or the public about any changes. As I’ve told them a number of times, it’s too late for our son; do it for someone else.

The first time I spoke with the chief medical officer, I told him, “What you guys do is obvious closing the ranks and making sure everybody there is protected and making sure no blame is actually assigned, which means making sure nothing is ever changed.”

He responded, “I’m not going to disagree with you.”

Now I know for certain.

I asked the questions the parent of any eight-day-old who died in the NICU would have asked. If the hospital and its leaders are offended by that, they should take a hard look at themselves in the mirror and assess whether their chosen profession is the right one for them.

It’s 2017. We live in the greatest country in the world. Our hospitals can do better. The people who run those hospitals can do better. We should demand it.

About the author

Todd DeFeo

Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits The Travel Trolley and Railfanning.org.