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Hospital, nurse sued in ‘alarm fatigue’ death

The family of Edward Harrigan, a patient who died at Tobey Hospital in Wareham after no one responded to warnings on his cardiac monitor, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the hospital and a nurse.

Harrigan, 87, was a patient at the hospital in September 2008. His electrocardiogram displayed a “flat line’’ for more than two hours because the battery in his heart monitor had died, but no one changed the battery despite that warning, according to state Department of Public Health investigators.

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During that time, his heart stopped. Because the monitor was not working, no alarm sounded to alert staff to his cardiac arrest. They later found him unresponsive and without a pulse.

The family’s lawyer said yesterday that Harrigan’s death was caused by “alarm fatigue,’’ when nurses become desensitized to monitor alarms, both audible and visual.

“It’s a very common problem, too many alarms going off,’’ said Kenneth Levine of Brookline, who is representing Harrigan’s nephew, David Harrigan, administrator of his uncle’s estate. “In this case, the alarm was ignored. The nurse was overwhelmed.’’

Joyce Brennan - a spokeswoman for Southcoast Health System, which includes Tobey - said the hospital would not comment. The nurse named in the lawsuit, Susan Spaulding, could not be reached for comment.

Since the death, which was first reported by the Globe in a series on alarm fatigue earlier this year, the hospital said it has taken aggressive steps to improve nurses’ responses. The Globe reported that at least 200 patients and probably many more have died nationwide since 2005 in cases involving alarm fatigue and other alarm-related problems.

The suit was filed in US District Court in Boston.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.
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