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Parents assail malpractice caps after daughter's death at UCLA hospital

Limits on payouts made it hard to find a lawyer when Olivia Cull, 17, died after a routine procedure. And the couple settled their lawsuit before all the information they wanted was revealed, her mother says.

January 22, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert and Joyce Cull, pictured here in daughter Olivias bedroom, say limits on damages after she died two years ago made it hard to find a lawyer and to get UCLA to fully disclose what went wrong during a routine procedure.
Robert and Joyce Cull, pictured here in daughter Olivias bedroom, say limits… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Two years ago last week, Olivia Cull, 17, was taken off life support. The standout student — who planned to study classics at Smith College — had slipped into a coma during a routine, outpatient procedure at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA in Westwood.

The story of her death was presented to Congress a few days ago, among cases cited by patient advocates pushing to lift the caps on damages for medical malpractice lawsuits.

As lawmakers search for ways to trim healthcare costs, debate continues over the country's medical malpractice laws. Physician groups say caps limit frivolous lawsuits that can drive good doctors out of business. But patients and their families argue that limits on payouts diminish accountability, making it hard to find lawyers to take cases and force full disclosure from doctors.

UCLA officials, who said they were "profoundly saddened by the death of this young woman," said they worked with state regulators and conducted a comprehensive investigation into her death.

"It is our policy and practice in all cases, including this one, to communicate honestly with patients and their family members regarding their care and treatment," officials said in a statement.

But Olivia's parents said going to court was the only way for them to learn the truth about their daughter's death.

As a baby, Olivia had surgery to correct a defect that left one side of her heart smaller than the other. A second surgery was delayed as she grew into a teenager who juggled violin practice, robotics club and theater rehearsals.

On Jan. 9, 2009, Joyce "Joy" Cull walked her daughter up the steps of the hospital for a procedure to prepare for the final corrective surgery. Doctors wanted to perform the operation before Olivia left for college on the East Coast in the fall.

Olivia was nervous, but her mother reassured her. The catheterization procedure would take only a few hours. Olivia had been through it several times before. Doctors said she would be home before dinner.

In black marker on her left heel Olivia had written the ancient Greek letters for Achilles, a reminder to stay strong.

Used to consent forms

In the years Olivia was treated at UCLA, her parents became accustomed to consent forms. Waiting with Olivia before the procedure, Joy Cull, 52, had signed the standard surgical consents without a second thought. She never imagined they would have to cope with what seemed like pro forma warnings.

By the time a cardiologist brought the bad news to the recovery waiting room, Cull had a feeling something was wrong. There had been an "incident" in the lab, Cull remembers being told, and Olivia had been deprived of oxygen for 40 seconds.

"OK, 40 seconds — my kids can hold their breath in the pool that long," Cull thought.

In the catheterization lab, Olivia was still on the table. She looked as if she were asleep — except for the breathing tube in her mouth. On the floor near Olivia's head, Cull noticed a pool of blood.

She touched Olivia's short brown hair, her arm and heart-shaped face. Olivia's skin was cool. Behind her, Cull said, she heard a nurse sobbing.

A week after they came to the hospital, the Culls held a wake in Olivia's hospital room. Classmates visited from Brentwood's Archer School for Girls, leaving notes at the foot of her bed.

Eight days after Olivia arrived at the hospital, her parents had her removed from the ventilator. Olivia's 13-year-old sister crept into the bed beside her. Her 11-year-old brother stood with his parents, watching Olivia's chest rise and fall.

Olivia's heart went on beating for three days. On the third day, the Culls removed an internal breathing tube, and Olivia died.

Distraught, the Culls sought answers from their daughter's doctors. An autopsy conducted at UCLA showed Olivia suffered brain damage as a result of a heart attack she suffered at the end of the catheterization, due in part to her congenital heart defect.

The Culls did not believe the heart defect alone caused Olivia's death. They suspected something had gone wrong in the catheterization lab. Olivia's longtime cardiologist told them her weak heart was to blame, the Culls said, but to them that made no sense. Olivia was not an invalid; she had been a healthy, active teenager, a Girl Scout camp counselor.

Dissatisfied, they pushed harder, requesting Olivia's medical records. When they demanded answers from hospital officials, the Culls said, they were told to review the records and, if they found a problem, to contact a lawyer.

Robert Cull, 56, was an accomplished architect who helped design Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Joy, a homemaker, had a master's degree in fine arts. As they sifted through records, they wondered how others in similar situations made sense of it all.

"It's confusing," Joy Cull said. "I could imagine this happening over and over again because families don't have the resources to find out how their loved one passed away. We had to claw our way through the system."

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