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Grief Sustains Couple in Suit Over Son's Death : Court: Attorney for Greater El Monte Community Hospital says the jury award of $624,774 will be appealed. Jose Francisco Huizar had been taken to the hospital for a blood test.

June 27, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL MONTE — Every week for the past five years, Jose and Maria Elena Huizar have visited the grave of their son, who died at the age of 5.

The couple carefully clears weeds off the small grave, dusts their dead boy's photo and places flowers beside it as a remembrance of their beloved, youngest child.

This same spirit of remembrance and grief has sustained the El Monte couple during a five-year court battle against Greater El Monte Community Hospital, whom the parents blame for their son's death.

Jose Francisco Huizar entered the hospital on the evening of Oct. 17, 1988, for a routine blood test. In less than an hour, he was dead.

Hospital officials maintain that Jose, who had undergone heart surgery three times before in his young life, died simply as a result of his ongoing, abnormal condition.

But the Huizars say their son, healthy and normal as a result of the operations, died at the hands of hospital employees who manhandled him, caused him to have a heart attack, failed to provide adequate care and then attempted to cover up their actions.

A Pasadena Superior Court jury earlier this month awarded the Huizars $624,774. The panel could not reach a decision on medical negligence. But they found that the hospital failed to provide key records and engaged in fraud by misinforming the family that a coroner's autopsy would be conducted.

Still, the decision represents merely another stage in a complicated battle likely to last for up to three more years as the hospital files appeals.

"It's difficult," Maria Elena Huizar said of her continuing fight. "But it's something I'm doing for my son, who was mistreated there."

The recent jury decision followed a four-week trial in an Alhambra courtroom.

Steven Effres, the Huizars' attorney, called about 20 witnesses, including Maria Elena Huizar, to give the following account:

The Huizars' son was born with a faulty heart valve that required three operations to repair: one at 2 days of age, one at 2 years and the last in August, 1988. Jose could not play competitive sports, but otherwise he was fine, doctors told his parents.

"He was normal, like any other child, as active as any other child, rolling and tumbling," Maria Elena Huizar said last week in Effres' office, recalling her testimony.

On Oct. 17, 1988, the mother noticed her son had a cold and cough. A pediatrician at her son's regular clinic examined the boy and found nothing serious. But the doctor suggested that, as a precaution, Jose get a blood test to make sure he had no infection that might endanger his recent heart valve operation.

The mother took her son to Greater El Monte Community Hospital. But Jose, seated on his mother's lap, began weeping and squirming as he fought against having his blood drawn. As two lab technicians struggled, the mother wiped Jose's tear-streaked face with a tissue.

A small piece of the paper caught on the boy's mouth and he spit it toward one lab technician, who immediately pushed the boy's head to the side and forward. The other technician, thinking Jose was trying to bite her, pushed Jose's head back.

Jose went limp.

The technicians left the room without trying to revive the boy. A confused and hysterical Maria Elena Huizar was left on her own to find the hospital's emergency room, 20 feet down the hall.

Within a few minutes, despite emergency room actions, the boy was dead.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and coroner's office began an investigation into that death, but the action was canceled after the hospital obtained a doctor's signature on a death certificate.

Three sets of records, crucial to establishing the care Jose received that night, were never provided to the family. But medical experts testified that Jose died of heart failure after he passed out.

Effres argued that the stress of the push and trauma over the blood test caused the boy to stop breathing. That led to his death after the two lab technicians failed to give Jose immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"The hospital not only failed to provide adequate care, they tried to cover up their carelessness," Effres said last week.

Not so, countered attorney Margaret Cahill, who represented the hospital.

"The hospital gave the child the best possible care," Cahill said. "The hospital has contested the issues raised by Mr. Effres from the beginning."

Cahill presented the following version of events:

Jose's heart was deteriorating when he entered the hospital, just 10 weeks after major heart surgery. In addition, emergency room records show he had a fever of 103.5 degrees, the lawyer said.

The lab technicians testified in court that they did not push the boy nor did they abandon him. One technician said she tried to guide Mrs. Huizar toward the emergency room.

Rather than try to resuscitate the boy in the lab, the technicians left the job to emergency room personnel with their specialized equipment.

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