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Improper care led to hospital death, lawyer tells jury

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In May 2007, multiple sclerosis patient Clarence Leroy Dunnavant checked into Saint Francis Hospital with a fever brought on by a urinary tract infection.

After treating Dunnavant, doctors told him he could go home the next day, according to lawyer Michael J. Del Giudice, who is representing Dunnavant's family in a lawsuit against the hospital.

On May 22 -- less than 24 hours after his treatment for the UTI -- Dunnavant lay dead in a hospital bed.

A hole had developed in Dunnavant's gastrointestinal tract, causing air to seep into his abdomen. Doctors and nurses misinterpreted his symptoms, and he slowly suffocated.

"The bottom line: He needed a doctor," Del Giudice said. "Had they done things properly, Mr. Dunnavant would still be alive today."

Dunnavant's family sued the hospital and several doctors and nurses charged with his care after his death in 2007. Jurors heard opening statements Tuesday in Kanawha Circuit Judge James C. Stucky's courtroom.

Del Giudice said that Dunnavant's on-call doctor, Justin Bailey, did not take proper steps to determine that Dunnavant should have been diagnosed with a perforated bowel. Bailey, despite repeated phone conversations with family members and nurses throughout the evening, did not arrive at the hospital to personally examine Dunnavant until about three hours before his death, Del Giudice said.

Nurses at the hospital failed to relay Dunnavant's symptoms back to the doctors and apparently did not provide proper care when doctors did order instructions, according to Del Giudice. In one incident, a nurse who had allegedly been rude with the family had been trying to give Dunnavant a suppository before Dunnavant's son, Michael, angrily pointed out that she had been trying to deposit the pill into a bedsore on Dunnavant's backside.

A doctor working at the hospital, Paula Taylor, also apparently failed to notice that Dunnavant's X-ray showed his abdomen was full of air, Del Giudice said. Taylor did not call for a radiologist to interpret the X-ray, the lawyer said.

Bailey's lawyer, Amy Lynn Rothman, told the jury that the symptoms hospital staff relayed to Bailey throughout the evening led the doctor to believe that Dunnavant was suffering from a less serious fecal blockage, rather than a perforated bowel.

Bailey had ordered several treatments for Dunnavant throughout the day, including the emergency X-ray. Taylor told Bailey that the scan indicated a fecal blockage, but allegedly did not mention that his intestines were punctured and that his abdomen was filled with air, Rothman said.

"Dr. Bailey cannot act upon information he does not know," Rothman had written on a PowerPoint presentation displayed to jurors.

"I ask you to remember that there are two sides to the story," she told the jury.

Saint Francis' lawyer, Tom Hurney, said the nurses reacted reasonably and were in constant communication with Dunnavant's doctors.

Hurney said that while the nurse who issued Dunnavant's suppository probably was being rude that day, the staff was attentive to Dunnavant's condition. Nurses recorded the man's abdominal swelling early in the day, and monitored his bowel and breathing sounds often, Hurley said.

Bailey and his practice, Saint Francis Hospital and Dr. Paula Taylor are named as three separate defendants in the lawsuit. Opening statements ran late into Tuesday afternoon.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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