LONG BEACH — A $10-million malpractice claim was filed Tuesday against Harbor-UCLA Medical Center by a mother who contends she was wrongfully separated from her newborn son when a urine test indicated that his blood held a trace of cocaine.
The test later proved wrong, according to the legal filing, and the infant was returned to the mother.
But in the roughly 36 hours between, Barbara Ann Myles--a 31-year-old X-ray technician employed by a Long Beach medical group--allegedly suffered "severe psychological and emotional trauma" that left her under the care of a psychiatrist.
"It's just been so stressful for me, not wanting to have anyone else hold the baby," Myles said as she sat Tuesday in her attorney's office clutching 13-day-old Christopher Joseph. "There is a lot of anger and hurt and humiliation inside of me because of how things were handled and how I was treated at the hospital, like a criminal."
She Has Heart Ailment
Myles' Long Beach attorney, Robert L. Kennedy, said the experience could even have been life-threatening because the mother has a heart condition. She specifically chose to have her baby at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center--a county facility near Torrance that serves as a state university teaching hospital and draws many patients from the Long Beach area--because of its ability to cope with coronary emergencies.
Kennedy said the case should prompt state and county officials to examine whether public hospitals are properly balancing their responsibility to report suspected illegal drug use with a concern for the physical and emotional well-being of the patients.
If hospitals are going to perform such drug tests, the lawyer argued, they should administer them to the mother before birth, since there is always a chance that during the delivery she might need an anesthetic that could cause a reaction.
"I've never heard of anything so outrageous before," Kennedy said. "We're not talking about a welfare mother, here. . . . The county hospitals are constantly saying, 'Gee, we like cash-paying clients.' Well, if this is the type of treatment they're going to deliver to their private patients I can see why they don't have any."
Toby Milligan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said officials at Harbor-UCLA had no comment Wednesday because they had yet to be served with the malpractice claim. (The county clerk's office confirmed receiving the claim--a formal notice that is legally required before anyone can sue a public agency.))
Another spokesman for the 716-bed hospital explained that urine tests are not routinely performed on newborns unless the infants display some sort of unusual behavior.
In fact, Myles said, the day after her son was born on Jan. 29, she was first told about the test by Harbor-UCLA Dr. Casey Crabtree, a resident pediatrician. The doctor explained that the test had been ordered because the infant "was, like, jittery or something," Myles recalled.
"She said, "We have a problem with your baby's urine.' . . . I thought maybe he had a problem, like some type of illness or something. And she said, "Well, we found cocaine in your baby's urine,' and I just couldn't say anything for the first 15 or 20 seconds."
Myles said she insisted to the doctor that the positive results must have been wrong.
"I said, 'Listen, I don't do drugs. I have two teen-agers at home.' I said I even stopped drinking decaffeinated coffee when I was carrying my baby."
But Myles said Crabtree seemed unimpressed. (Hospital spokeswoman Milligan said Crabtree had no comment.)
"All this time the other mothers were in the (four-bed) room . . . and she (Crabtree) was just blurting all this stuff out. And I said, 'Well, I demand that you repeat the test and take my urine and my blood' " and compare the results.
Crabtree agreed to perform another test on the baby and one on Myles. But in the meantime, Myles said, the doctor told her "a social worker would be in to talk to me and they were putting a 'police hold' on my baby"--indicating that the infant would not be released into his mother's custody. "And when she left (the hospital room) she took my baby with her. I was pretty upset at this point. I didn't know what to do."
A social worker later came to her room and explained the legal consequences--that she might have to go to court and that the baby might be turned over to foster parents.
"When she was saying all that I just broke down and started crying," Myles said. "I just couldn't believe what was going on and what was being said, just like some nightmare or something."
Over the next 24 hours, Myles said, she was not allowed to breast feed the baby or keep it in her room. She was only permitted to visit the nursery and sit by the infant.
"On his chart they had in big red letters, Police Hold," Myles recalled.