John Verrier, a 30-year-old man who went to a Bronx, New York, hospital emergency room because of a skin rash, waited more than eight hours to see a doctor. A security guard found him “stiff, blue and cold” in a waiting room chair.
“There’s no policy in place to check the waiting room to see if people waiting to be seen are still there or still alive,” a hospital spokesperson told ABC News. The hospital says Verrier didn’t respond when his name was called for treatment, even though security camera footage recorded that he was “alive and moving around” after he was called.
“No one should sit in a waiting room that long,” Verrier’s mother, Susan, said.
“You’re just a number no matter where you go,” said Verrier’s brother, Charles. “That’s how they treated him, like a number. I don’t want this pushed under the rug as another mistake.”
I don’t know why Verrier died. I may never know. The medical examiner did an autopsy, and they’ll figure it out, but I’ve seen no follow-up. The media may not be sufficiently interested to publish the results by the time the report is finished.
The cause of death doesn’t interest me much. It’ll be an unusual heart problem, an overdose or a complication of drug use. The interesting question is: What’s the manner of death?
Hypothesizing that Mr. Verrier died of heart disease, it would be reasonable to conclude the manner of his death was natural. That’s how I would certify it, and I’m sure most of my medical examiner colleagues would agree.
But a few years ago, a coroner’s jury ruled differently in a similar case.
According to a 2006 Associated Press report, Beatrice Vance arrived at a Waukegan, Illinois, emergency room, complaining of nausea, shortness of breath and severe chest pain – classic signs of a heart attack. Her condition was classified as “semi-emergent” by a triage nurse, but doctors were too busy with other cases to see her.
Two hours after Vance arrived at the emergency room, a nurse called her for treatment. But by that time, she was dead in her chair.
Waukegan is in Lake County, Illinois, which has a coroner rather than a medical examiner. As part of his investigation, coroner Richard Keller held an inquest into Vance’s death.
Her immediate cause of death was a heart attack, the coroner’s jury found, but she also died “as a result of gross deviations from the standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in this situation.”
Keller, who isn’t a doctor, ruled Vance’s death a homicide.
“Gross deviations from the standard of care” sounds a lot like negligence. I’ve made homicide rulings on the basis of negligence – when a man left his baby to roast to death in the car while he spent the afternoon in a bar, for instance.
But call it homicide when death results from a doctor’s negligence? Medical examiners are doctors. I’m a doctor. The thought makes my skin crawl.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.