CalMatters – Victims of medical negligence in California should be included in investigations

By Annette Ramirez, CALMATTERS

Eleven years ago I went into the hospital for a hysterectomy and was expecting to go home the next day. Instead, I fought to survive in the hospital for two years after my doctor’s mistakes and neglect caused an infection that cost me my arms and my legs.

The doctor nicked my colon during the surgery. This mistake is a known possibility, and my abnormal vital signs were the classic symptoms of a leaky colon. But for more than 36 hours my doctor failed to check on me. We learned later that he ordered an enema that, with an open colon, made things much worse.

The result was a severe infection that spread throughout my system, causing me to go into septic shock and burning my body from the inside out.

Half of my skin was burnt. The other half had to be used for skin grafts. Ultimately, I was placed in a coma for four months. I quickly developed gangrene, and my arms and legs began to blacken. This led to the amputation of all four of my limbs. 

I was away from my husband and our two young children for two years.

After this traumatic event, it became a top priority for my family and I to hold the negligent providers accountable. I reported the doctor to the Medical Board of California, the state agency responsible for keeping patients safe and disciplining doctors who harm them.

I filed my complaint in January 2015. After waiting more than six months without a reply, I called almost daily to try and reach the board. I finally received a letter indicating that the case had been closed. I was never interviewed and there was never any follow up. 

It was outrageous and inconceivable to me that the board never bothered to speak to me. How could they dismiss the complaint of a quad amputee and burn victim so easily? Why did I never get to tell my side of the story?

These are questions too many patients like me have to ask. The medical board regularly closes complaints about a doctor’s negligence without ever interviewing the injured patient. By doing so, the board omits important evidence. 

State legislation could finally change that. Senate Bill 815, authored by Democratic Sen. Richard Roth of Riverside, would require the board to interview a patient before their complaint is closed. The bill faces a crucial vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee this week.

Since the board does not disclose any information about the complaints it receives, the public doesn’t know how often the board closes them in error. But I have spoken to many other patients and families whose complaints were closed without a single interaction with the board.

In addition, the legislation gives patients a voice by allowing them to make a victim impact statement to the board, and creates a complainant liaison team to guide patients through investigations. 

The bill would bring California in line with the standard of proof used in 41 other states, and it makes it harder for doctors to delay investigations and drive up costs.

Unfortunately, these commonsense reforms are under threat as medical lobbyists try to weaken the bill, including a fee increase that the board needs to keep its lights on. Like every other health care board in California, the medical board is funded by doctor licensing fees. But those fees have failed to keep pace with inflation, increasing just $80 in 17 years. The board has asked for the bare minimum it needs to escape insolvency and begin to improve patient protections.

I have shared my story with the medical board and the Legislature, seeking better oversight of doctors. Many of the families I have met along the way have been doing so for decades. SB 815 is a long-awaited answer to our calls for reform.

Families like mine deserve an opportunity to share our side of the story.

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