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Suit Alleges Elder Abuse at Hospital

Oxnard facility fights a complaint filed on behalf of a woman kept alive against her wishes.

September 30, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for an Oxnard hospital that is being sued for resuscitating an elderly woman who had filed orders not to keep her alive asked a judge Monday to dismiss a civil complaint alleging elder abuse against the facility.

St. John's Regional Medical Center, an affiliate of Catholic Healthcare West, and three doctors at the hospital are being sued by the family of 82-year-old Margaret Furlong, who died March 12, 2002.

Furlong was kept alive for 10 days after suffering a cardiac arrest, even though her medical file included explicit orders that doctors not use any heroic life-extending measures.

In their second complaint to the court, filed on behalf of Furlong and her son, Patrick, lawyers allege negligence, elder abuse, violation of state health-care laws and unfair business practices. The plaintiff is seeking unspecified damages.

"She lived for several days, but she underwent all the evasive procedures that she'd tried to avoid," attorney Jody Moore said. "These physicians were well aware of her wishes, but they essentially turned a blind eye."

Hospital lawyers countered that Furlong's case does not rise to the level of recklessness and malicious conduct necessary to claim elder abuse under state law. Even if the allegations made by Furlong's attorneys were true, the hospital could only be charged with negligence, said attorney Maureen Clark, who is representing Catholic Healthcare West.

"From my perspective, I don't think that there are enough additional facts to bring it to the level of elder abuse or unfair business practices," Clark said.

The distinction between negligence and elder abuse is significant because in California a claim of medical negligence does not permit financial recovery for the deceased person's pain and suffering.

Furlong lived in a nursing home and took medications for a host of painful conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and severe skin ulcers, Moore said.

On March 2, she was admitted to the hospital emergency room because of vomiting and stomach discomfort. Eight hours later, Furlong went into cardiac arrest and was given CPR, medication and respiratory assistance in an effort to resuscitate her heart, the complaint alleges.

Over the next 10 days, a cognizant but verbally incapacitated Furlong endured "extreme pain and suffering" and was "left to suffer in silence," according to the complaint.

Moore contends that doctors never verified or reviewed Furlong's medical wishes even though several hours passed between the time she was admitted and the time she was resuscitated. Furthermore, Moore says the hospital failed to follow its own policies regarding advance directives and did not perform appropriate assessment or management of Furlong's pain following her resuscitation.

Patrick Furlong and his attorneys acknowledge that they have a tough fight ahead of them, considering the judge's decision to dismiss an earlier elder-abuse complaint.

"I'm doing this to rattle a cage, so that no other little old lady has to suffer needlessly," said Furlong.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Steven Hintz is expected to rule in the next several days.

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