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A couple's loss may offer lesson

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- It's a common event for a doctor to send a sick child to the emergency room to be pumped up with fluids. It's not common at all for the child to die in the process. After this happened to their 8-month-old daughter Kendall, Ryan and Kim Bliss wanted answers. Wouldn't you? They wanted consolation. Wouldn't you? Failing to get either, they sued the hospital and all the doctors and nurses involved. Wouldn't you?

This will necessarily tell only their side of the story, because the hospital doesn't seem to be interested in my invitation to tell its side of it. The court docket reflects an apparent settlement with the hospital, with terms -- as usual -- not to be disclosed. Two doctors remain as defendants; it would be unwise for them to say anything, so I didn't ask. None of this happened in the parts of Florida this newspaper serves, so the defendants' names really don't matter.

What does matter is the frustration that the Blisses say sent them to the lawyers. I frequently hear from doctors who don't like what I write about the medical malpractice issue, but I would urge them to take to heart what the couple has to say. Then perhaps there would be fewer malpractice suits.

This is their story:

The pediatrician was concerned that Kendall was becoming dehydrated. At the hospital, nurses found the baby's veins so hard to penetrate that they had to send for the doctor to do it. He came, inserted the intervenous needle, and left the nurses to tend the process. They say they saw air bubbles in the line, after a nurse squeezed the bag, and expressed concern. The baby cried, turned blue and died. Resuscitation efforts failed. Their suit alleged that air bubbles in the line caused fatal blockages in her brain.

The parents were not allowed in the room where the doctors were trying to save Kendall. When they were finally let in for a last goodbye, all the equipment -- needle, lines, bags -- had been removed and, apparently, disposed of.

They say there wasn't a word of sorrow or sympathy from the staff. Instead, Kim Bliss says, "the head nurse told us what beautiful eyes Kendall had and that we should donate them . . ." "It was like she wasn't even talking about a human being."

When they asked the nurse what had happened, says Ryan Bliss, "She said, "I can't answer that for you.' "

Of course she couldn't, not without a post-mortem. But couldn't she have said, "We'll try to get an answer for you"?

One nurse, he said, asked "How old was he?"

They have two children born since Kendall's death, but they still celebrate her birthday. The gifts that people bring are given to the children of women staying at a refuge house.

"It makes us feel good to be able to do that," says Ryan.

The Blisses, who live elsewhere now, at Melbourne, are deeply religious people. Both work for public agencies. They're the sort of people whose instinct is to respect authority. They're so oddly cast in the role of plaintiffs that I asked Ryan Bliss, over lunch, whether they would have simply accepted the tragedy if the hospital and the doctors had promised to find out what had gone wrong and see that it didn't happen again?

"Sure," he said. "We're doing this so that this doesn't happen to another child. We're not doing it for the money."

One can only hope that's what the suit will achieve. If the hospital's insurance company is doing its job, it will see that lessons were learned and acted upon.

One of the first lessons ought to be to show more humanity in such moments of tragedy.

But if what the insurance and medical lobbies are demanding of the Legislature now had been the law then, the Blisses probably couldn't have found a lawyer to take the case.

The demand is for a $250,000 ceiling on non-economic damages. This is commonly referred to as the "pain and suffering" component of a settlement or a jury award, but in fact it is for a lot more. Florida jury instructions refer also to inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, disfigurement and the loss of capacity to enjoy life. All that is hard to quantify, but sometimes it's all there is. For example, the Wisconsin woman who lost two healthy breasts because a laboratory confused her biopsy with someone else's may not have much in lost wages or medical bills, but her misery should add up for a lot; for enough, at least, to send a nationwide message about the cost of such carelessness.

The same is true of dead babies and their parents, and of retired people and their grieving spouses. (Florida doesn't even allow a wrongful death suit if the victim of malpractice has only an adult child surviving.)

"It would cost us $250,000 to prove this case," says Christian Searcy of West Palm Beach, whose firm represents the Blisses, "and why would anybody spend a thousand hours of their time and $250,000 of their money to make a recovery of $250,000?"

Few if any would. That's why the lobbies want the cap, and why it is so wrong.

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