Debra Watkins, Huntington Beach

Debra Watkins specializes in communications. She believes in helping others and has devoted herself to building coalitions to help the homeless and veterans. When her brother was diagnosed with lung cancer, Debra stepped in and became his advocate and caregiver taking care of him until his death.

After her brother died, Debra began having health problems herself. She saw her primary care doctor who failed to diagnose her problem and, as the delays mounted, she grew weaker. When Debra’s new team of doctors finally diagnosed a hernia and recommended surgery, she was hopeful that she had found a road back to health. Instead, everything went horribly wrong.

Going into surgery, Debra was concerned that the operating table was very narrow, and she feared that she was going to fall.

When Debra awakened from the procedure, she panicked because she could not see out of her left eye, her body was black and blue, and she was in massive pain. With no attending physician available, the two hospital night nurses were the only health care professionals monitoring her. Debra asked, “I can’t see why can’t I see?” but was given no information on her condition or care. Instead, the next morning post surgery, she shared her complaints and concerns with the surgeon’s nurse practitioner, who tried to discharge her from the hospital before it was medically safe, and radiology could perform more exams. Debra was saved by a volunteer, who walked in with a wheelchair telling Debra, “You aren’t going anywhere. We are taking you to radiology.” It was left to the volunteer and staff from radiology to first inform Debra that there was an accident in the operating room.

The operating table was not set up properly and there was a defective support that failed. No one in the operating room had made sure it was secure, resulting in an accident and serious injuries to Debra.

She suspects the doctor was in a hurry and was not paying attention. She was told her surgery was stopped so radiology could be called in to x-ray her body to make sure she didn’t have any broken bones. Had the volunteer not walked in to help her after surgery, Debra would have been sent home injured and may never have been informed of the accident and where all the visible injuries to her body had come from.

Even worse, the OR accident was not the only problem during her surgery.  Other health care professionals, horrified by her treatment, became Debra’s advocates. Through them and radiology reports, Debra learned there had also been other issues with her surgery. Several doctors, including critical care specialists, who reviewed her injuries told her she should sue the surgeon and hospital.  The surgeon told her loved ones before leaving the hospital, that her surgery was a success with no incidents, and the surgeon’s nurse practitioner told her they had finished the original surgery.  Yet Debra learned before being discharged this was all untrue, and that her hernia was never fixed. Debra also learned later the surgeon preformed a surgery he was not authorized to preform, without her prior knowledge and consent. He never told her about it before or after surgery.

One of the most troubling complications is her extreme nausea and vomiting. Every night between 5 PM and bedtime she starts vomiting. She cannot eat or even drink water if she leaves the house, and she has vomited in public. It is a humiliating condition to live with. Debra feels her ongoing health problems all stem back to that disastrous day in the operating room when everything went wrong.

Debra’s family and friends watched her suffer and were outraged; they encouraged her to take action. She met with numerous lawyers, and some told her they could not take her case due to the $250,000 cap on malpractice lawsuits and how the malpractice insurance companies use the old, outdated California law to prevent patients from getting justice. In the meantime, Debra has accumulated more than $200,000 in medical bills. Debra loves her job with a passion, but she can no longer work as she has for the past 30 years. Debra is suffering not only long-term complications from her injuries and botched surgery but the uncertain future that many victims of long-term harm face given the 46-year-old cap on compensation for the pain and trauma she has suffered. Debra ultimately did find an attorney, but she feels it was only because her medical bills continue to mount.

Debra recently learned her original primary care doctor had previously been on probation for failing to properly diagnose and treat other patients, much as he failed in her care, and had even had his license revoked and then restored. She never knew this history, because doctors are not required to disclose past discipline to future patients. Debra feels like her rights were violated and has become an advocate in the hopes that sharing her story might help save another family from life-long harm.