Lawsuit questions procedures for dying patients

Family claims terminally ill patient was transferred and 'lost' by Stanford Hospital officials in a Christmas Eve 2005 mixup

A lawsuit alleging that Stanford University Hospital transferred a terminally ill 80-year-old patient without his family's knowledge and then "lost" the body for a time is scheduled to return to court Jan. 17.

The case stems from a Christmas Eve, 2005, incident in which the family of a Peter Williams Allen -- a Palo Alto resident who was near death from a congestive heart condition, kidney failure, a stroke and an infection -- left the hospital Dec. 23 believing Allen would remain in a room with his belongings at least through Christmas Eve.

Instead, the suit alleges that a physician within an hour had him transferred to an "end-of-life" unit in the hospital, without his belongings. His arms were restrained, leaving him unable to use his hands -- his only post-stroke way of communicating, the suit alleges. He suffered a stroke while in the hospital that left him unable to speak.

Hospital officials are defending the transfer and actions and will seek to have the case dismissed when it comes up for hearing Jan. 17 in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

"Stanford Hospital and Clinics has reviewed this matter and believes that the physicians, nurses and staff provided appropriate and caring treatment to Mr. Allen," Shelley Hebert, Stanford Hospital and Medical Clinics director of public affairs, said. In depositions, physicians involved said Allen's arms were restrained to prevent him from pulling out feeding and other tubes.

No dollar amount is specified in the lawsuit, but the suit alleges elder abuse, negligence, infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death. It asks for damages that include general damages, funeral and burial expenses, punitive damages, attorney fees and legal costs, according James Geagan, a Sonoma-based attorney representing Allen's family.

A family member told the Palo Alto Weekly the primary motive behind the lawsuit is to force Stanford to review and change its protocols relating to notification of families about changes in care status for seriously ill or terminally ill patients.

In addition, after Allen died in the early hours of Dec. 24, the hospital allowed a Menlo Park mortuary to pick up the body, without the family having yet chosen a mortuary or having signed a release form, according to the lawsuit.

Family members first learned that Allen's body had been released when a representative of a different mortuary, Roller & Hapgood Tinney Inc. of Palo Alto, called the hospital while the family was present and was told that hospital personnel didn't know where Allen's body was as there was no release form.

Allen was conscious when family members left his bedside at 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges the family wanted Allen to remain in his hospital room with all of his belongings and Christmas tree, and had discussed this with on-duty physicians. The family believed he would remain in his room until at least the next day so arrangements could be made to move him home for hospice care.

One Stanford physician said in a deposition that the doctor who ordered the transfer "did not believe that consent by the patient or family was required to transfer a patient from one unit to another. (The doctor) testified that it happened quite often that the family leaves a patient in one unit and returns to find a patient in another unit."

The responsible doctor, who is doing his residency at Stanford, said in a deposition that he understood the family approved the transfer to the end-of-life unit, but noted the family had discussed that the treatments Allen was receiving would continue until the following day. The family alleges that life-sustaining treatments were withdrawn without the family's knowledge or consent, and one family member said the family believes Allen's personal belongings were being removed while he was still in the room and conscious but unable to communicate.

The lawsuit alleges that as a result of a breakdown in protocol at Stanford, hospital staff in the end-of-life unit assumed Allen had no family; that staff in the cardiac unit knew the family was highly involved in Allen's care but did not forward the family's contact information to end-of-life unit nurses. Allen's family did not learn of his death for more than eight hours, according to the lawsuit.

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Like this comment
Posted by janette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 11, 2008 at 11:08 am

That really sucks. Stanford should be ashamed of itself. My thoughts are with the family. How distressing for them, and for Mr. Allen. As an older person, this uncaring treatment makes my hair stand on end.

More and more I think, never leave a loved one in a hospital without a family member present at all times.

Like this comment
Posted by suzie
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2008 at 1:07 pm

What happened to that family is a travesty! I believe that Stanford thinks they can get away with stuff like that because of their "stellar" reputation but I and many of my friends would NEVER go to Stanford Hospital. We all have horror stories about that place!

Like this comment
Posted by Joan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2008 at 1:23 pm

This is an example of family members becoming too involved in hospital affairs. My father was transferred three times in the lst month of his life. I was never notified. I just asked which room he is currently in. Then I went to that room. No big deal.

There was a breakdown in communications about the body, but that is hardly worth a lawsuit. The cost of medicine, which we all pay for, is driven up by ridiculous stuff like this.

Like this comment
Posted by joe
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 11, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Joan, I think dying in a peaceful environment with one's belongings of meaning present and the beauty and religious symbolism of a Christmas tree is a lot different that in a sterile environment where the staff clearly is just waiting for you to die and clearly could care less about that or your comfort, restrained, and with no family member present. Shame on Stanford.

Like this comment
Posted by steve
a resident of Ohlone School
on Jan 12, 2008 at 10:12 am

Maybe the cost of medicine (in this case) is driven up by a lack of communication on the part of the hospital?

The fact that his body was lost shows a lack of procedure and compassion for anyone who has to deal with the loss of a loved one.

Like this comment
Posted by kevin
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 12, 2008 at 11:58 am

Joan- It is naive to think that you can ever become to involved in hospital affairs when it comes to your loved ones. It is most disturbing to hear you say that it is ridiculous to be concerned about your loved one's remains being released in error without any family authorization or notification. Clearly you and the physician in this case were raised with the same family values.
And Stanford, this is what happens when your physicians don't follow protocal. Where were the checks and balances for this patient?

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2008 at 1:35 pm

My sympathies are with the family. The details add up and appear to show that Stanford Hospital Staff failed Peter Allen and his family that Christmas Eve in 2005: an inexperienced doctor (in residency); belief(!!!) by this doctor that consent wasn't needed for unit-to-unit transfers, despite the obvious ramifications of this type of transfer; intra-hospital transfers of this nature w/out paperwork(???); a pattern of such transfers w/out paperwork(???); an apparent breakdown of communication between units, perhaps exemplified in the delay of notice of death; no release form, perhaps another example (apparently Stanford Hospital just gives bodies away); the hospital thinking it had lost the body (uh, why release forms exist); a second unknown mortuary involved; and the apparent contradiction between where Peter Allen was intended to pass, at home, in hospice, with family vs. where he did, alone in an end-of-life ward. At the very least, there appear to be protocols in place at Stanford under which any family with a dying member there would and should be particulary wary, protocols without accountability or reasonability. Given the weight of all the details, though, I think a heavy case could be made for negligence on Stanford Hospital's part. This would not be the first time: Web Link and Web Link

Seems like another case of a big corporation that does not want to take responsibility, so it hides behind big lawyers. The little guy rarely has a chance. In this case, Peter Allen...

I have been told Mr. Allen was a proud graduate of Stanford. Oh, the irony. R.I.P.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2008 at 2:21 pm

There are two different and separate issues being discussed here.

If the family was upset with the rooming arrangements of a patient and whether or not this patient could have a large amount of belongings (including a Christmas tree) is very separate from the more serious aspect of the release and loss of whereabouts of the deceased patient.

A hospital has to be run as a hospital and I think it is ridiculous to think that a patient can have a home from home about him even if he is dying. This is what hospices are for. If a terminally ill patient wants to make his room more like his home for the duration of his illness, then he is in the wrong place and should think of moving into hospice care. A hospital has to be run as an efficient means of serving all of its patients and not meeting all the individual whims of every single patient or their family. Generally Stanford, as most hospitals do, are very accommodating with most families wishes and comforts, but they do have to draw the line somewhere. After all, they are a hospital and do have other patients to consider.

The admin problem with the subsequent details of the remains after death is a different issue and should be dealt with separately. It is after all a non medical problem, and problem it appears to be.

Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 12, 2008 at 3:27 pm

This case would probably have been mitigated if a euthanasia procedure was allowed.

Like this comment
Posted by Katherine
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 12, 2008 at 6:03 pm

Mike of Palo Alto puts his argument cogently. I have to agree. (Thank you for the links.) The Allen family looks to have been wronged. The hospital ought to have the integrity to accept its mistakes and make amends.

Like this comment
Posted by Scott H.
a resident of Atherton
on Jan 12, 2008 at 6:14 pm

The "resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood" muddles the issue. The article states that the family was attempting to arrange hospice care at their home. Ever try to arrange hospice care? Ever try to arrange hospice care a day or two before Christmas? By the way, the hospital didn't remove the patient's belongings because they were a nuisance, they removed them because they were incompetent.

Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jan 12, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Most people die alone. Why is this such a big deal? It is unbelievable that a lawsuit is being brought on this issue. No hospital should be held hostage to familiy demands.

America has a big issue with death. It is time that we accept it as a normal part of life.

Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jan 12, 2008 at 7:09 pm

If this happened to my wife, I'd be outraged. To be deprived of her last time on earth because Stanford has its head up its rear...Lawsuit would be the least of the hospital's worries if it were me.

Like this comment
Posted by mne
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2008 at 7:24 pm

This is a tragedy. My deepest condolences go out to the Allen Family. Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, that which has been lost cannot be replaced (on a number of levels).

The hope is that Stanford accepts and takes responsibility for the fact that somewhere along the line at least one mistake was made and that protocol changes need to occur to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again.
For the Allens I hope this is resolved soon.

Like this comment
Posted by Gene
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 14, 2008 at 7:53 am

I am 'scared to death' of every having to go to the Stanford ER again unless I am unconscious and/or have no choice. Our family has had some very bad experiences there, one almost went to a lawsuit. It is antiquated, inefficient, and very impersonal. The in-hospital care is mediocre to say the least. Once a family member almost died in the ER waiting room because of a delay in being admitted for treatment. He ended up in ICU for four days after losing consciousness sitting in a wheelchair while a family member pounded on the door pleading for help. Will a new $28M state of the art ER change things? Not until there is an 'attitude change'. The entire hospital system needs a shake-up from top to bottom.

The in-hospital care ranges from good to mediocre to just plain awful.

Like this comment
Posted by CN
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2008 at 9:29 am

Stanford Hospital insists everything they do is per their procedure. It is a pity that compassion and human dignity are not even considered in their protocol. They should be made accountable for their gross insensitivity. Perhaps only if the stakes are high enough as outlined in the lawsuit will they even take notice. My condolences to the Allens for their loss. My best wishes to the Allens in their battle with Stanford.

Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Woodside
on Jan 14, 2008 at 1:02 pm

My thanks to the author for this article. My father does not have much longer to live, and he is being treating through Stanford Hospital. Evidently, I must be extra vigilant in my oversight of hospital care. I am heart stricken when I think about what the Allens must have experienced. My mother's fragile enough right now. Something like what they suffered would break her.

My sincere condolences to the Allen family.

Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 19, 2008 at 11:34 am

...."is scheduled to return to court Jan. 17".
This is Jan. 19. What happened in court?

Like this comment
Posted by MB Forrest
a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2008 at 10:51 am

I know Mrs. Allen, and remember when this happened. It was a horrible thing for the family to go through. Stanford needs to accept the fact that this was not handled correctly, and make sure it never happens again.

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth Wong
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Another example of outrageous behavior – covering up your mistakes instead of learning from them. This is a putatively prestigious teaching institution. Stanford Hospital owes the Allen family a promise to do better and then to put in procedures that ensure this never happens again. Stanford Hospital broke its oath to continue providing health sustaining care to Peter Allen. He should not have been sent to the end of life ward without his family’s knowledge and consent. Stanford Hospital should not stoop to covering up incidents like this with excuses and rationalization driven by high ticket lawyers.

Like this comment
Posted by Jaime Wong
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2008 at 6:25 pm

In this day and age, in this society, we are taught to care for our aged and infirm with compassion and dignity. Eighty years old is not a death sentence. Neither is being ill when you are that age. Stanford Hospital owed Mr. Allen better than he got, and they owe his family an apology and a promise to do better. It’s the least they can do.

Kudos to the family for pursing this matter. They stand for the many others who do not have the ability, means and fortitude to obligate Stanford Hospital to live up to their responsibilities.

Like this comment
Posted by Denise
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 25, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Shame on Stanford! I hope the Allens are able, through their lawsuit, to force Stanford into taking the responsibility they are attempting to avoid. So much for the Hippocratic oath...God bless america.

Like this comment
Posted by Stacey
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2008 at 11:31 am

My heart goes out to the Allen Family. It is wrong of the doctor to remove the patient without family consent, near death or not. Who is the doctor to play God? To decide who lives and who dies? Shame on Stanford for not having a protocol in place where patients are treated with dignity to the very end. Stanford should take full responsibility and make necessary changes to their medical system.

Like this comment
Posted by nate
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 20, 2010 at 10:04 am

please accept my sympathies with the family.

There are clearly communication problems but the standard of hospice care should be looked into to before filing a malpractise claim any other issues need to be resolved through some greavance meetings without involving the attorneys. Attorneys drive these cases and try to bring it to jury for an award most of it goes to them. I know personally several cases where attorneys got the most of the award and I had very little money.

I think stanford has several groups like Ambudsman group to resolve these issues. These law suits are creating high cost of health care which is pushing a third of Americans to go without insurance.

I am concerned that the family now will not have bereavement services because they are involved in the litigation. There is 13 months bereavement that is part of hospice care.

Our society is insanely becoming litigous and this need to stop somewhere before physicians quit practising like in the field of Obstetrics for the fear of law suits.



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