Metro

Hospital leaders apologize, acknowledge mistakes cost Laura Levis her life

Peter DeMarco (left) and Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer for Cambridge Health Alliance, embraced Tuesday.
JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF
Peter DeMarco (left) and Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer for Cambridge Health Alliance, embraced Tuesday.

The leaders of Somerville Hospital’s parent organization met face-to-face Tuesday with the husband of a woman who died after collapsing outside their locked emergency room door in 2016, admitting to “multiple failures” during the emotional sitdown and apologizing for their role in the death.

“I’m very sorry for what happened to your wife,” chief executive Patrick Wardell told Peter DeMarco, the widower of 34-year-old Laura Levis, who died after suffering a fatal asthma attack outside Somerville Hospital. “I can understand the horrible pain that this has inflicted upon you.”

“I take personal responsibility for this,” he added.

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DeMarco replied softly: “It’s good to finally hear these words from you.”

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It was a remarkable scene: a husband shattered by his wife’s premature death posing painful questions that have lingered for years, and executives repeatedly admitting that they failed.

Throughout the somber meeting, DeMarco kept a framed photo of his wife beside him — a selfie from their last Thanksgiving together. He wore his wedding ring and a necktie in his wife’s favorite color, purple.

Wardell and three other officials from Cambridge Health Alliance, the parent of Somerville Hospital, answered DeMarco’s questions for two hours in the meeting at the Globe’s downtown Boston offices.

DeMarco, in a Globe Magazine story , detailed the many emergency response and health care system failures that led to his wife’s death.

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He described how Levis walked alone to Somerville Hospital early one morning in September 2016 when she felt her asthma attack coming on. When she found the door locked, she called 911 and told the operator she was outside the hospital emergency room and couldn’t get in. Levis said she was dying.

But her call was transferred, and by the time first responders located Levis, on a bench just 29 feet from the hospital’s main entrance, it was too late to save her life, DeMarco wrote. (An emergency department nurse stepped outside to look for Levis at one point, but she stopped her search after just 12 seconds.)

Boston, MA, 11/13/2018 -- Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer (L) listens as Pete DeMarco asks him a question about the death of his wife, Laura Levis. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 14somerville Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer (left) listened as Pete DeMarco asked him a question about the death of his wife, Laura Levis.

Hospital officials didn’t refute any of those details. They had previously declined to comment on Levis’s care, citing fear of litigation. But DeMarco on Tuesday repeated his promise not to sue the hospital and said he only wanted the truth.

“I truly believe Laura would be alive today if not for the mistakes made by your organization — the organization which you lead,” DeMarco told Wardell on Tuesday. “What do you think? Do you think she’d be alive today if these mistakes were not made?”

Wardell did not answer directly, so DeMarco pressed him.

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Wardell finally replied: “It certainly seems to me that if even some of the things, not all the things we described as being issues, that if they hadn’t occurred, then your wife would be here.”

“How would you feel? How would you feel if this was your wife or your daughter?” DeMarco asked the CEO.

“I would be angry. I would be bitter,” Wardell said. “I would want answers.”

Levis, after being treated in the emergency room in Somerville, was moved to Cambridge Hospital (also run by Cambridge Health Alliance), where she spent seven days in intensive care. DeMarco was by her side. After she died, he wrote a touching thank-you letter to her caregivers, which was published in The New York Times and shared widely.

But DeMarco said hospital officials never told him that his wife got within feet of the emergency room and couldn’t get inside. He began to unravel the details through police reports and other records.

On Tuesday, DeMarco asked why hospital officials never told him what happened.

Wardell said he wrongly assumed that DeMarco already knew the details.

Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer at Cambridge Health Alliance, said hospital officials learned from their investigation into Levis’s case and made several changes, including improving lighting, signage, video surveillance, and training for employees.

He handed DeMarco a two-page list of the hospital’s errors and steps taken to prevent those mistakes from happening again.

“It’s hard to continue saying we failed, but we did fail,” Sayah said.

Boston, MA, 11/13/2018 -- Patrick Wardell, chief executive officer (L) shakes hands with Pete DeMarco at the start of a meeting where he and other executives answered questions about the death of DeMarco's wife, Laura Levis. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 14somerville Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Patrick Wardell, chief executive officer (left) shook hands with Pete DeMarco at the start of a meeting.

Hospital officials said they didn’t reprimand individual employees for the mistakes that were made, describing the problems as system failures. They said the nurse who failed to see Levis on that bench — whom DeMarco calls Nurse X — still works at Somerville Hospital.

Wardell said he was committed to sharing the lessons learned from Levis’s death and told DeMarco that he wanted to work together on an effort to honor Levis’s legacy. DeMarco said he would consider that offer.

The CEO shook DeMarco’s hand on his way out. Sayah and chief nursing officer Lynette Alberti each hugged DeMarco.

After the meeting, DeMarco said he was disappointed by some of the answers he received, and he still has questions about his wife’s death. But he was grateful to finally hear directly from hospital executives.

“They offered me accountability today by admitting their mistakes, by finally doing the right thing,” he said.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka dayal.