Holly Harris enjoyed a career in social services and healthcare as a staff trainer for a child abuse prevention agency in San Diego. She had a very hands-on role overseeing staff conduct home visits. She had the critical job of reunifying families after children were removed from the home. It was important to be hands on, and eyes on, as she was responsible for determining whether children were returning to a safe environment. At some visits, Holly would find a gun or drugs in the open where children might have access to them. The safety of children was in her hands and she needed her full visual skills to assess the safety of their living conditions.
As she worked to protect at-risk youth across San Diego County Holly was also the active mom of five-year old Corbin.
Holly enjoyed nothing better than playing sports and sharing activities with her son. She drove him to and participated in soccer, swimming and many other lessons and activities. She loved that dedicated bonding time and the shared memories that every parent cherishes. She never expected that those shared memories were soon to become a distant memory.
Holly had endured neck, arm, and shoulder pain for six months. At first, she thought she had injured herself while roller skating with her son. She followed her medical providers’ suggestions and spent the following six months being treated with massage, occupational therapy, chiropractic care, meditation, over-the-counter pain medication, and acupuncture without positive results.
After six months of no improvement, her medical provider ordered blood work and a chest x-ray. They discovered a 13-centimeter tumor in the middle of her chest inside the sternum. There were strands of her tumor going into her trapezius muscle.
Holly entered a San Diego hospital on September 30, 1991 for thoracic surgery to diagnose, grade and stage the tumor. The surgical procedure was supposed to be a simple forceps biopsy which was described as a one-half inch cut between the breasts. Holly was expected to go back to work the next day. She never made it back to work.
What was meant to be a simple procedure progressed into a catastrophic surgical error that left her totally, permanently blind in both eyes, with permanent lung and diaphragm injuries and huge surgical scars.
Holly’s life forever changed when her thoracic surgeon erroneously cut fully through the Superior Vena Cava, the main vein entering the heart, then sutured it completely closed. The catastrophic surgical error cut off blood flow from her upper body to the heart.
Holly had to undergo an emergency heart bypass that same day. She was on a ventilator in a medically induced coma for five days and in cardiac intensive care for more than two weeks. She spent the next 7 months simultaneously fighting cancer and recovering from the major organ damage caused by the surgical errors. She would never regain her sight.
With an unknown future before her, Holly went back to school to learn how to live as a blind person in a world geared to those with sight. While at the San Diego Center for the Blind, and the Braille Institute of La Jolla, she began to learn the skills she would need to maneuver through her day-to-day activities – everything from safe kitchen practices to computer training to reading Braille.
In her quest to rebuild her life, she went back to school to get her Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling at San Diego State. She did not feel that she could go back to her former job overseeing home visits for at-risk children without her sight.
Holly did her best to adapt to her new life. Her biggest regret is how her injury changed her life with her son. Holly recalls Corbin wanting her to play soccer with him after she came home from the hospital and hearing the disappointment in his voice when he remembered that she could no longer share those moments. For a while, she continued to try to go to his games. She recalls being hit by the soccer ball again and again. She would sit by the sideline, and she couldn’t seem to avoid being hit. It produced a fear in her which caused her to give up on going to games. Corbin played soccer throughout school and was the Captain and goalkeeper for his La Jolla High School team. She would always hear the victorious stories when he came home, but she was never able to personally experience his triumphs. Recalling those lost moments still brings her a flood of sadness. It was not how Holly thought her life with her son was going to be.
She could not see her son grow into the teenager and the man she raised. She could not see him exchange his vows with his wife or the birth of her two grandchildren. She did her best to rebuild a life without sight, but she lost a view of life that we all take for granted. Those were family memories and moments that you cannot replace.
California law capped compensation for quality of life injuries like Holly’s loss of sight in 1975, at a level that has never been updated. While Holly settled her medical negligence case and was compensated for some of her lost income, she is saddened that the cap considers her loss of sight insignificant. She understands what other families who have been injured, or have tragically lost family members, endure when they learn their losses have no value because of the cap.
Twenty-nine years later, Holly is still experiencing medical complications of that original error. The latest came in the spring of 2019 when she was diagnosed with Basal Cell Carcinoma. Basal Cell Carcinoma generally grows on existing traumatic scars like Holly’s.
Holly has been asked if she could change things would she ever go back to her former self. Holly said, “People always say no, that they have gained so much from the experience. I agree to a point but the never-ending underlying sadness of not being able to see my child grow up, see the changes in his face, and see his kids grow up will always hurt.”
Holly received a settlement over 20 years ago. The catastrophic surgical errors she experienced over twenty-nine years ago impacts her life every single day. She is not sure what tomorrow will bring. She did her best to rebuild her life but her medical negligence continues to cause her pain and other medical issues to this day.
Inspired by a life-long friend, Holly chose to become an advocate. She has been able to use her experience and the pain that comes from surviving medical negligence to help other families who have endured death and life-long harm. Her medical negligence experience motivates her through the years to advocate for safer healthcare for all Californians.