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Hospital Error Cited in Man's Death

Stabbing: Coroner says victim of an alleged hate crime by gang members was given massive dose of an anticoagulant.

August 28, 2002|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new report on the death of a man stabbed outside a Riverside gay bar in an alleged hate crime reveals that the man may have bled to death because of hospital error.

A nurse accidentally gave Jeffery Owens 100,000 units of an anticoagulant drug--100 times the recommended dose--according to a report this week by the Riverside County coroner's office. With his blood unable to clot, Owens bled to death at Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley, the report said.

The coroner's report paints a picture of a confused emergency room, where the nurse was unsure of the proper dosage of the medication and couldn't find help from colleagues.

Prosecutors said Tuesday the hospital's error does not lessen the culpability of five Riverside alleged gang members charged with Owens' murder.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Corrado said her office will vigorously pursue murder convictions against the defendants, adding: "Were it not for the stab wound, he would not be dead."

But at least one criminal law expert, Los Angeles trial attorney Howard Weitzman, said the hospital's mistakes could make it more difficult to obtain convictions.

"I guess some could argue that, but for the actions of the defendants, [Owens] wouldn't be in the hospital and the death wouldn't have occurred," Weitzman said. "But I think that's a real stretch."

Mike Soccio, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office, acknowledged that the coroner's findings "could make the case more difficult, because it confuses the issue." But, he added, "It's up to us to help the jury to stay on track. The fact is, someone was murdered here."

The coroner's report lists the "inadvertent administration of excessive heparin," the anticoagulant, as a "significant condition" in Owens' death.

But Corrado said the district attorney's case will be aided by the fact that the coroner's report still lists the stabbing as the cause of death.

On June 5, the 40-year-old Owens and friends were leaving the Menagerie, a gay nightclub in downtown Riverside. The Moreno Valley man was stabbed five times and a friend, Michael Bussee, 48, was punched in the face and stabbed.

Police called the attack a hate crime and later arrested five alleged gang members, including Dorian Lee Gutierrez, 18, suspected of being the one who stabbed Owens.

A preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 25.

Owens, unaware of how badly he was injured, drove himself to the hospital emergency room. According to the coroner's report, doctors there considered his wounds moderately serious.

As Owens continued to bleed. Dr. David Bolivar decided to give Owens a transfusion with his own blood. Bolivar, a surgical resident, ordered a nurse to administer the anticoagulant heparin in preparation for the transfusion. The nurse, Patricia Forst, said she asked Bolivar how much heparin she should use but the doctor did not know, according to the coroner's report.

The nurse told investigators she then called the hospital's blood bank and pharmacy for guidance. Neither department knew the proper dosage.

Forst said she couldn't remember what happened next, but ultimately she began administering 100,000 units of the drug, the report said.

"Nobody ever gave me any direction," Forst told coroner's investigators. "I thought I was giving him 1,000 units, that's what the protocol is."

The hospital's medical director, Dr. Benson W. Harer, said in an interview Tuesday that "the nurse guessed and she made a bad guess."

Forst has been placed on administrative leave pending an internal hospital investigation, Harer said.

Neither Forst nor Bolivar could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Owens survived the surgery and seemed to stabilize, the report said. But as morning approached, he was bleeding profusely. Surgeons thought he still had an open wound and rushed him back into surgery. He died in the operating room.

"There was just generalized oozing [of blood] from everywhere," said Dr. Arnold Tabuenca, according to the report. "There was not one place that was bleeding."

Doctors at first thought Owens suffered from a condition that prevents the blood from clotting.

It wasn't until two weeks later, when Bolivar overheard nurses talking about the possibility of a heparin overdose, that hospital administrators became aware of what had happened.

Harer, the hospital medical director, said he notified Owens' family immediately of the mistake.

Family members could not be reached for comment Tuesday. They have not yet filed a claim with the county, which operates the hospital, said Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith.

"Accidents happen all the time in medicine," Harer said. "But usually there aren't such big repercussions."

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