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A Silent Struggle

Joyce Hamel talks to daughter Jennifer about everything, hoping that she can reach the 34-year-old--the recipient of the largest medical malpractice judgment awarded in O.C.


Jennifer Hamel lives in a world of sensations--the soothing sound of her mother's voice, the smell of freshly popped corn, the warmth of the sun on her skin as she sits in the backyard of her Laguna Niguel home.

At least her parents and doctors hope that she senses those things. Nobody knows for sure because Hamel, 34, has been trapped for five years in a body that doesn't work.

A routine medical procedure that went wrong left her paralyzed from the neck down, nearly blind and unable to communicate except by blinking. Doctors say she is conscious, but they don't know how aware she is.

A medical malpractice judgment--the largest ever awarded in Orange County, and recently upheld--covers the staggering health-care bills. No amount of money, however, can pay the emotional toll.

For her mother, Joyce, caring for Jennifer has become a mission carried out with devotion and undying optimism despite a grim prognosis that is every parent's nightmare. Yet she remains unswervingly focused on an uncompromising goal: giving her daughter a normal life.

On a recent day, as she lovingly stroked Jennifer's dark, ribboned hair, she chatted with her.

"Hi, Jennifer," she said. "Do you think Mom could beat you on the tennis court? Two blinks, yes; one blink, no."

She waited and watched as her daughter's expression changed, suggesting intense concentration. Finally, the younger woman blinked--just once.

"Well!" the older woman exclaimed. "Mom's getting kind of old and fat. You better get your buns out of this bed pretty soon to try."

Though Joyce Hamel knows that is next to impossible, she refuses to give in to despair. She arranges visits with friends, birthday parties and day trips for her daughter, reads to her, watches TV with her--and keeps talking to her.

"You never give up hope on your children," Joyce said matter-of-factly. "You just take it day by day and play the hand you're dealt."

The hand dealt to Jennifer Hamel in 1993 never should have happened, medical and legal experts say. At age 29, she was a healthy, energetic woman who enjoyed playing tennis, attended church regularly and recently had vacationed in Mexico with friends. She had been working as a telemarketer but was laid off. She decided to use her time off to have some minor dental and medical problems treated, including difficulty with her menstrual periods.

She chose a gynecologist by looking in the Yellow Pages for a doctor whose office was near her home in Huntington Beach. She had one appointment with Dr. William Keel, who referred her to a local medical clinic for a hysteroscopy--dilation of the cervix and examination of the uterine wall. The procedure is a common one used to diagnose and treat menstrual disorders.

"The night before," Joyce Hamel said, "we played tennis, and she kept mentioning it. She was nervous. When we walked out to our cars, I told her it would be a piece of cake."

But a series of mistakes by the doctor and the administrator at the Outpatient Surgery Center in Huntington Beach turned an otherwise simple 15-minute procedure into a medical catastrophe.


According to the testimony of physicians and other experts at the malpractice trial that ensued, this is what happened:

On May 21, 1993, Jennifer Hamel was anesthetized at 7:30 a.m. for a pelvic examination by Keel. While the doctor was examining her, he discovered a fingertip-sized fibroid tumor in the wall of her uterus and concluded that the growth was the source of her medical problem.

Keel decided to remove the fibroid, even though Hamel had not given consent for such a surgery. The procedure required use of a pump especially designed to fill the uterus with a liquid to distend it and afford the surgeon access. The doctor used the wrong pump, one that was too powerful. As a result, some of the liquid--also the wrong kind for such a procedure--escaped into the young woman's bloodstream, causing cardiac arrest that deprived her brain of oxygen for at least 15 minutes.

"By 8:15 a.m.," an appellate court judge wrote later, "Hamel still had no heartbeat or blood pressure and was blue. Experts testified that by this point her brain injury was irreversible."


Hamel family lawyer Cornelius P. Bahan of Irvine summed it up this way: "It was probably the most outrageous breakdown of traditional safeguards that I've ever seen."

Hamel's family sued Keel, the anesthesiologist and Dr. Neil A. Friedman, owner and administrator of the surgery center.

In the trial, which began in July 1995, the three defendants blamed each other for the tragedy.

Six weeks of testimony included an appearance by Jennifer Hamel, who was wheeled in on a gurney by a nurse and two ambulance drivers. "There was kind of a gasp from everyone when she came through the doors," Joyce Hamel said. "But I wanted the jury to see what had happened to my healthy young daughter."

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