In May, doctors at Primary Children’s Hospital began a routine operation on a 7-month-old girl, using a carbon dioxide laser to burn away excess tissue in her upper larynx.
It wasn’t the first time the baby — born with laryngomalacia, a common birth defect — had undergone the procedure. The baby’s mother, Heather Benson, said she wasn’t scared going into the surgery because she kind of knew what to expect.
But this time, doctors and hospital staff came out of the operating room and pulled her aside. They said there had been some complications:
“They set my child on fire,” said Benson, who, with the baby’s father, Scott Kendrick, is suing the hospital and doctors for alleged negligence.
Since the day of the surgery, Benson’s life has been a rollercoaster, she said. Doctors first told her the baby’s injury was relatively minor, she said, a couple of centimeters burned on one side of the baby’s airway. But Benson said she soon learned the burns were much more severe and stretched across her daughter’s entire airway, from her vocal cords to her mouth.
The baby has been in the hospital ever since. While court documents show doctors said she could and should have been discharged Friday — because being there increases the risk of hospital-acquired infections and isn’t ideal for the baby’s development — Benson said she can’t leave. Her daughter requires 24-hour care from a licensed nurse, she said, and Benson isn’t a nurse.
It comes down to this, Benson said: “They’re telling me either stay in the hospital, and run the risk of my daughter dying from a virus, or take her home with no aftercare and risk her dying because I don’t have the qualifications to provide her with the care that she needs.”
A spokeswoman for Primary Children’s Hospital issued a statement on the lawsuit, saying, “It’s important to know that the health and safety of our young patients is our top priority. That’s a commitment we take very seriously and strive for every day. Unfortunately, due to active litigation, we’re not able to comment on this particular matter.”
In a court filing, the hospital acknowledged that “an unexpected event occurred during the surgery.” The lawsuit says the “defendants have admitted full liability and responsibility for the injury.”
Benson’s attorney had sought a temporary restraining order to keep the baby from being discharged on Friday. Third District Court Judge Andrew H. Stone denied the request, however, when the hospital argued that it never intended to release the baby against the wishes of her parents.
According to the lawsuit, the baby went into surgery on May 16 for a supraglottoplasty performed by physician Harlan Muntz and anesthesiologist Wade Smith. During the surgery, a tube slipped, coming into contact with the carbon dioxide laser and catching on fire, Benson said. The slip caused “acute respiratory failure and extensive scarring,” according to the lawsuit.
Benson said doctors used the wrong type of tubing during the procedure. This tube was flammable, and it shouldn’t have been, she said.
“For something like this to happen, it was a little bit of shock," Benson said, pausing for a moment. “It makes you not want to trust anybody.”
The parents, who live in Roosevelt, argue they cannot provide their daughter with the specialized care she would need at home, and that the hospital refuses to provide the nurses she would need.
The hospital said in a court filing that “no effort to force her discharge has or will occur” until “a discharge plan that is medically reasonable and acceptable to her parents and to her physicians is in place.”
For now, Benson said, she and her daughter will stay at the hospital. Benson said her goal with the lawsuit is to make sure her daughter is taken care of and the hospital is held accountable.
The suit names the children’s hospital, University of Utah Hospital, the University of Utah, Smith and the state. A spokeswoman for Benson’s attorney said Smith was listed individually because he was contracted to work at the hospital, not an employee.
Benson and Kendrick seek an undetermined amount of money for pain and suffering, the costs of medical treatment, future mental health treatment, lost earnings and benefits, according to the lawsuit.
Clarification: 5:11 p.m., Sept. 22, 2018 • This story was updated with a statement from Children’s Hospital.