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Woman Sues in False Death Report

Court: Retired schoolteacher says she is having nightmares after being told by a hospital nurse that her ill husband had died.

September 15, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A phone call jarred Martha Weaver from a fitful sleep at 2 a.m. and it took a few seconds for the news to filter through her early-morning haze.

The caller, who identified herself as a nurse at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, said that Weaver's 64-year-old husband had just died, two days after being hospitalized with heart trouble.

When Weaver and her daughter, Cmell, 35, had left Ben Weaver just a few hours earlier, his spirits were good, his condition improving. In fact, the nurses were arranging to move him out of intensive care.

Now on the short drive from their Somis home to the Camarillo hospital, Martha and Cmell (pronounced Camille) Weaver were arranging for a funeral.

Only it turned out that Ben Weaver was alive. The hospital had called Martha Weaver in error, which she discovered after learning on arrival that her husband was sound asleep in his hospital bed--snoring.

"It was absolutely the most wonderful sound," said Martha Weaver, whose first reactions had been to notify the family's church of her husband's death and try to contact their son, who was on a Navy ship near Guam.

Weaver's relief turned to anger and then concern over what she feared was a flaw in the hospital's notification procedures. She resolved to make sure that such an upsetting mistake doesn't happen again.

Martha and Cmell Weaver filed a lawsuit last week against Catholic Healthcare West, operators of St. John's Pleasant Valley, and Nationwide Nursing Services, which employed the temporary nurse who made the June 20 call.

The lawsuit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages for pain and suffering, as well as payment for medical expenses and other costs related to physical problems the women say they have experienced since the incident.

"It seemed to us, after some discussion, that there should be some accountability," said Martha Weaver, 62, a retired schoolteacher. "This should never have to happen again to anybody else."

St. John's spokeswoman Rita O'Connor would not comment on the lawsuit but issued the following statement:

"We deeply regret that this ever happened. We are taking steps to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. When we recognized what happened, we provided the family with the correct information and apologized for this unfortunate incident."

Representatives of Catholic Healthcare West did not return a phone call seeking comment, and a representative for Nationwide Nursing Services declined to comment.

The incident calls attention to the growing reliance on temporary or traveling nurses at hospitals across the nation.

Kay McVay, president of the California Nurses Assn., said hospitals are spending more than $10 billion annually on what are called registry nurses as a way of controlling costs and meeting a nationwide shortage.

But often what hospitals get for their money are temporary nurses with less education, fewer skills and a lack of knowledge about the institutions they work for, McVay said. That can lead to a lapse in following a hospital's policies, procedures and practices, she said.

"I fully believe that the industry has created a monstrosity with use of these registries," said McVay, adding that hospitals would be better off spending their money hiring more full-time nurses.

"They felt this was a better way of controlling their labor costs, but I think they have been finding out in the last few years [that] this is not necessarily the best route to take," McVay said

She said that in her 43 years of nursing, she has never heard of such a mistake being made.

"You're usually pretty careful about who you call," she said.

Oxnard attorney Gregory L. Johnson, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Weavers, said for purposes of this case it doesn't matter whether the nurse worked for a registry service or directly for the hospital.

The nurse, Heather Smit, acted as an agent of the hospital "because she appeared in the same nurse's uniform as other hospital personnel, acted just as other nurses who were employees [and] held herself out as hospital personnel ....," according to the lawsuit.

At no point during the 2 a.m. conversation with Martha Weaver did the nurse ask the name of the person she had called, identify the patient by name or clarify that she was talking to the correct family, the lawsuit says.

The nurse told Weaver that her husband had died peacefully in his sleep but that there had not been time to notify the family before he died, the lawsuit says.

Martha Weaver turned pale and her breathing became shallow and rapid, the lawsuit states. Her skin became cold and wet and she began shaking uncontrollably.

Cmell Weaver, a fourth-grade teacher in Moorpark, covered her mother with blankets and tried to keep her alert, according to the lawsuit.

After arriving at the hospital, the Weavers met with the nurse who had placed the call. As soon as Smit saw them, "she rose to her feet, covered her mouth and said, 'Oh, my God, I called the wrong family,' " the lawsuit says.

The women were taken to Ben Weaver's room in the intensive care unit.

"I was relieved, absolutely relieved," Cmell Weaver said. "It was pretty close to joy when I heard him snoring."

Ben Weaver is home now and on the mend. The retired machinist learned about the incident from his wife and daughter and is concerned about how it was affecting them.

Martha and Cmell Weaver are now undergoing counseling. Both say they have trouble sleeping and suffer from nightmares.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to move forward, to not spend an exaggerated amount of time ruminating on a bad situation," Martha Weaver said.

"I feel very grateful that my husband is alive, but the emotions [of that day] are still there."

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