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Somerville Hospital apologizes after death of woman outside

PHOTO 4 – Photo of outside Somerville Hospital, CURRENT new ER entrance. CUTLINE: “Following Laura's death, Somerville Hospital redesigned its emergency-room entrance, adding new signage and converting the door she had found locked into a new, publicly-accessible entry.” PHOTO BY PETER DEMARCO
PETER DEMARCO photo
The current entrance to the Somerville Hospital.

Officials at the parent company of Somerville Hospital apologized Wednesday night for not meeting “our own standards for transparency and accountability” in the death of Laura Levis, who went to the emergency room during a severe 2016 asthma attack and found the door locked.

In a statement, Cambridge Health Alliance pledged to improve its emergency medical response protocols days after The Boston Globe Magazine published a story about how the cracks and flaws in the health care system led to Levis’s death.

The story, written by Levis’s husband, Peter DeMarco, chronicled Levis’s asthma attack before dawn on the morning of Sept. 16, 2016. Levis’s attack led her to Somerville Hospital, but she never made it through the door. DeMarco’s narrative detailed the communication errors, overburdened staffs, and lack of fail-safes that plagued the response of police, fire, and hospital staff to Levis’s medical emergency.

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Some 10 minutes passed between the time Levis called 911 and the time was she was found, in cardiac arrest following the asthma attack, mere feet from an entrance to the hospital’s emergency room. She spent seven days in an intensive care unit at CHA Cambridge Hospital, which is also owned by the alliance, before dying on Sept. 22, 2016. She was 34.

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“It is impossible to read Mr. DeMarco’s story about his wife, Laura Levis, without being concerned about the issues he raises,” said Cambridge Health Alliance, the parent organization of Somerville Hospital, in its Wednesday statement. “His heartfelt and comprehensive overview sheds light on many areas where Cambridge Health Alliance and the emergency medical response infrastructure made mistakes and must improve.”

In a phone interview Wednesday evening, DeMarco called the alliance’s statement “a positive first step.”

“Our families have been waiting over two years to hear them accept even an ounce of responsibility for Laura’s death,” he said. “Two years is a long time.”

He added, “But in my view if they are truly sincere about trying to apologize to our families, a more meaningful step would be to meet me face-to-face at the Globe offices as I’ve repeatedly suggested to them, so they can answer every question I have about how Laura, or anyone for that matter, could have been left to die 29 feet from their front door.”

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He is also pushing for alliance officials to explain to him “every single step they’ve taken since her death.”

“To make sure this never, ever happens again,” he said.

One-time use only for magazine story. Petebog NEW YORK TIMES THANK YOU LETTER PIC - “Laura and Peter, hiking the Scottish Highlands in 2015.” PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER DEMARCO
Photos courtesy of Peter DeMarco
Peter DeMarco and Laura Levis, hiking the Scottish Highlands in 2015.

Additionally, he would like the company to commit “to helping share the lessons from Laura’s tragedy with as many hospitals as possible across the entire country.”

“That would really mean something to me, to our families, and to everyone who ever loved Laura,” he said.

Cambridge Health Alliance spokesman David Cecere said in an e-mail Wednesday night that Somerville Hospital has improved access into its Emergency Department and updated signage for the building’s facade and ER, and upgraded “wayfinding systems to provide clearer pathways to all locations.” He also said the hospital improved communication and “role clarification” between public safety and clinical staff, and increased education regarding regulations that define “the responsibilities for all hospitals in the emergent care of all persons in and around the grounds of a health care system.”

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After Levis’s death, Somerville Hospital added an illuminated “EMERGENCY” sign near one of the entrances, according to internal hospital documents.

In the aftermath of Levis’s death, no one from Cambridge Health Alliance told him she had been locked outside the hospital door, DeMarco wrote. He learned about the circumstances from police reports requested by her uncle about five weeks later.

In the alliance’s Wednesday apology, the organization said it “did not meet our own high standards for transparency and accountability with Mr. DeMarco and Ms. Levis’ family. It should not have taken an event like this for us to identify and resolve a number of structural, training and communication issues. We have already begun to make the necessary changes.”

“We could have done better, and we will do better,” read the statement. “There are no words to effectively express our sorrow over the loss of Ms. Levis. More importantly, for the role we played in compounding her family’s grief, we are deeply sorry.”

The magazine story, which was published Saturday night, quickly went viral. In that story, Cambridge Health Alliance officials, when approached with questions about changes at Somerville Hospital and about Levis’s death, said they couldn’t comment because of potential litigation.

“NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” aired a segment on Levis’s death Wednesday night. The hospital issued its statement to NBC, and shared it with DeMarco, who provided it to the Globe.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.