Jury to decide if liability exists in case where woman’s last wishes denied

Georgia law gives every resident the power to decide how much medical intervention may be employed to prolong life.

 

A Richmond County Superior Court jury next month will decide if Dr. Phillip Catalano and the staff at Doctors Hospital did what was reasonable to treat 91-year-old Bucilla Stephenson or ignored her advance directive for health care and the person she entrusted to make her medical care decisions if she was unable, her granddaughter Jacqueline Alicea said.

The 2013 case reached the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court as defense attorneys were unsuccessful in getting it thrown out on the grounds Catalano and the hospital were entitled to immunity under the Advance Directive Act, the law that spells out how a person’s right to make end-of-life decisions works.

“… A clear objective of the Act is to ensure that in making decisions about a patient’s health care, it is the will of the patient or her designated agent, and not the will of the health care provider, that controls,” the state Supreme Court noted in its July 5, 2016, unanimous decision against Catalano and Doctors Hospital.

The opposing sides agree on some aspects, such as the fact Stephenson was brought to Doctors Hospital on March 3, 2012, and diagnosed with pneumonia, sepsis and acute renal failure. She died two weeks later.

Alicea and her husband cared for Stephenson at their home. She contends that when they took Stephenson to the hospital that Saturday morning, they took a copy of her advanced directive and gave it to hospital staff.

In 2009, Stephenson signed the advance directive for health care that designated Alicea as her medical agent, and spelled out her desire not to have her life prolonged if her condition was incurable. Stephenson did not want her granddaughter to have to make the decision of taking her off life support as Alicea had to do with her father two years earlier, according to the plaintiff’s petition.

The defense contends Alicea told hospital staff about her grandmother’s directive but didn’t bring a copy. It also contends Alicea was consulted and fully informed of two procedures performed to help Stephenson breathe better, and that on March 7, 2012, when Stephenson went into respiratory distress, Catalano gave the order over the phone to intubate to save Stephenson’s life.

But at that point, the directive was in Stephenson’s medical chart, as were notes by another doctor that documented CPR was not to be performed and that Alicea had to be consulted before intubation, according to the Supreme Court opinion. A nurse asked Catalano if he wanted to call Alicea before ordering the intubation but he rebuffed her, according to the high court’s opinion. Stephenson was intubated and hooked to a ventilator.

Over the next week, Stephenson had a feeding tube inserted, underwent blood transfusions, a bronchoscopy and a tracheostomy. Because Alicea was fully advised of these medical steps, it proves Catalano and the hospital staff acted reasonably and in good faith to do what was in Stephenson’s best interest, according to the defense.

The plaintiff is seeking the $200,000 in medical expenses charged after the March 7, 2012, intubation, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

Each side expects to present expert testimony about Stephenson’s condition. The plaintiff’s expert believes she was already incurable when she arrived at the hospital. The defense’s experts disagree, according to court documents.

Another dispute is if and when Catalano knew about the directive. Georgia law protects medical personnel from any civil, criminal or professional adverse action when they follow an advance directive. The law also protects medical staff when they refuse to follow one if the patient or medical agent is promptly informed of their unwillingness and they continue to assist with care until care is transferred to another provider.

The trial is scheduled for June 12.

 

Reach Sandy Hodson at sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com or (706) 823-3226

 

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