Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson was a natural with computers. At 23, he was a talented software specialist and planned to relocate to Texas to move up in the tech world. He was a social butterfly and had a large circle of friends. His mother, Denise, describes him as an understanding listener and hysterically funny.  

However, when Richard developed chronic headaches, his whole life changed. He was soon diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Despite a dire prognosis, two years later he officially became a cancer survivor. He had beaten the cancer against all odds. But a series of negligent decisions and senseless withholding of treatment for a mild infection unrelated to the cancer led to his death at age 25. 

Richard first assumed his headaches were due to work-related stress and brought bottles of extra-strength aspirin with him to the office. But as they worsened over a few months, his productivity dropped. His doctor told him he just had migraines and offered a prescription, but it didn’t help. He knew he wasn’t doing his job like he used to and sadly was forced to resign. 

Richard soon went to the emergency room for stronger pain medication. After further investigation, an MRI showed that his headaches were caused by a tumor in his brain. Further scans and tests revealed that he had an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. He was given just six months to live. Despite his dire prognosis, Richard chose to fight and undergo cancer treatment.  

He first had a shunt placed in his head to relieve pressure. Immediately following the procedure Richard felt increasing numbness and tingling on the right side of his body. He described feeling as though he had been “cut in half.” Over the next two years, the numbness progressed into complete right-side paralysis and he eventually could not walk, talk, or even swallow.  

His doctors attributed these symptoms to the tumor, which they treated with high doses of chemotherapy. According to MRIs, the treatment began to work, and Richard received the miraculous news that his tumor had shrunk. He and his family were thrilled. But, strangely, the paralysis didn’t improve. 

Throughout this time, Richard had been researching and learning to cook healthy foods that were known to have natural cancer-fighting antioxidants and immunity boosters. Denise made sure he was getting exercise every day, even as his mobility decreased. They did everything they could to fight the cancer. Richard learned more about the science behind the tumor and even organized a fundraiser for brain cancer research. 

When Richard and Denise inquired about his paralysis, his doctor told them he had been mistakenly overdosed on the chemotherapy treatment. Apparently, the toxicity of the drugs were the cause of his muscular weakness. The doctor halved his dose, and Richard waited to see improvement. As he began to show improvement, he was once again overdosed because of a lack of communication between the doctor and pharmacist causing further decline of his entire muscle system.  

Two years after his cancer diagnosis, his tumor was deemed stable and dormant. But the right-side paralysis had not improved, and he was finally referred to a neurologist. This new doctor immediately saw that the shunt which had been placed just after his diagnosis two years prior was “too long” and appeared to be in the left part of his brain, “where it didn’t belong.” Denise was mortified, knowing that her son’s paralysis could have been prevented if the procedure had been done correctly years ago, and if doctors had investigated Richard’s symptoms earlier. But they were hopeful now that they finally knew the cause of the paralysis, and he went in for corrective surgery. 

The surgery went well and Richard was recovering at home when one night he became more lethargic and less responsive than normal. Denise took his temperature and found he had a 101-degree fever. They rushed to the nearest hospital. When they arrived, it was determined that the shunt was fine, he just had a mild and treatable case of pneumonia. The next morning, he was doing much better – sitting up in bed, happy and alert. Denise spoke with three doctors, informing them of Richard’s whole medical history, and repeating his current diagnosis of pneumonia. They reassured her they understood the details and would “see him later.”  

Over the next week, Denise never saw his doctors. She showed up to help with his scheduled physical therapy sessions, but the therapist never appeared. Each day, she stopped at the nurses’ station and left a message for Richard’s primary assigned doctor, inquiring about his treatment and missed therapy sessions. She got no answers. 

Throughout the week, Richard became lethargic and unresponsive again. Denise didn’t understand why, since he only had a mild case of pneumonia. She continued to seek answers from the medical staff but received no response until his doctor scheduled a family meeting. 

At the meeting, the doctor informed Denise that Richard’s treatment had been stopped four days prior. Denise was shocked and perplexed. When she asked for an explanation, the doctor responded, “Well, wouldn’t you rather he die from pneumonia instead of that tumor?” Denise realized Richard’s medical team at this new hospital had a misconception of her son’s condition. They clearly did not understand that he was a brain cancer survivor, and that the tumor was dormant. His new doctor had assumed Richard would soon succumb to brain cancer and allowed the pneumonia to run its course instead. 

Denise now understood why Richard had again become unresponsive. The pneumonia had been killing him. She knew the fight was over. She immediately made arrangements to bring him home, where he spent his final hours. 

Denise wanted justice for her son. He had overcome so much, only to die a senseless death. She spoke with countless lawyers, but none would take her case because California’s 1975 cap on damages in medical malpractice cases made it unaffordable.  

Still seeking accountability, she turned to the Medical Board of California and filed several complaints. Three years later, while still grieving the unexpected loss of her son, she received a phone call from an investigator from the Board. As Denise shared with her details of the negligence that killed Richard, the investigator giggled and commented insensitively. Denise said, “I was unable to continue the phone call because I was so disturbed and upset by her lack of compassion.” 

Then, five years after Richard’s death, she received letters which all said that they were unable to validate her complaints. 

She says, “I had been confident that the Medical Board would stand strong in defense of patients and of human life. I was terribly wrong. There was no accountability from the agency responsible for enforcing it. I received no contact except for. Five years later, my son’s life did not seem to matter to the Medical Board.” 

As the mother of a young man killed by medical negligence, Denise never wants anyone to go through what her family went through. As a Native American woman, she recognizes her son’s repeatedly poor treatment as perhaps part of the broader issue of racism in the medical field. She wants others to know her son’s story, in the hope that it will bring change. 

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