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After death of Laura Levis, lawmakers seek to prevent another such tragedy

Somerville Hospital made changes to lighting, signs, and surveillance following the death of Laura Levis.
Somerville Hospital made changes to lighting, signs, and surveillance following the death of Laura Levis.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

If just one thing had happened differently that day, Laura Levis might have survived.

Instead, Levis, seeking emergency help for an asthma attack, found a locked door when she arrived at Somerville Hospital, collapsed outside, and later died. She was just 34.

Now Levis’s husband is pushing Massachusetts lawmakers to approve legislation to help prevent another such tragedy. One bill — dubbed “Laura’s Law” — would require the Department of Public Health to write rules requiring all hospitals in the state to “ensure safe patient access at all times” to their emergency departments. This could include rules about signs, lighting, and surveillance, as well as the installation of panic buttons or emergency doorbells at certain hospital doors.

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“Standards should be in place for every hospital,” said Peter DeMarco, Levis’s husband. DeMarco wrote about his wife for the Boston Globe magazine in November, detailing several emergency response and health care system failures that led to her death.

Levis walked alone to Somerville Hospital early one morning in 2016 when she began experiencing symptoms of an asthma attack. When she got to the door and found it locked, she called 911 and said she was dying and couldn’t get in. Levis collapsed on a bench outside the hospital and lost crucial time as first responders searched for her in the dark.

She was treated in the Somerville Hospital emergency room, then spent seven days in intensive care at Cambridge Hospital, before she died.

DeMarco is pushing another bill that could prove controversial. It would remove the limit on how much money people can recover in lawsuits against public and nonprofit hospitals in particularly devastating cases, such as when a patient becomes severely disfigured or dies. Currently, damages are capped at $100,000, which may not be enough to cover the legal expenses for patients and families who choose to sue.

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State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen and state Representative Christine P. Barber, both Somerville Democrats, are the lead sponsors of the legislation.

DeMarco has promised not to sue Somerville Hospital, which is part of Cambridge Health Alliance, a public health system, and said he will lose the ability to do so in September, when the statute of limitations expires.

“I’m hoping to create something meaningful for others out of my wife’s incredibly tragic and unnecessary death,” he said. “These bills are for others. Our families won’t benefit from them.”

Several days after the publication of DeMarco’s story last fall, top executives from Cambridge Health Alliance met with him and apologized repeatedly for their failure to help Levis.

“It’s hard to continue saying we failed, but we did fail,” Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief medical officer at Cambridge Health Alliance, said at the time.

Hospital officials said they made several changes after Levis’s death, including installing new lights, adding signs, and upgrading their video surveillance system.

They have hired the law firm Foley Hoag LLP to review the circumstances around Levis’s death and identify opportunities for improvement. Former state attorney general Martha Coakley and Dean Richlin, both partners at the firm, are leading that review.

David Cecere, a spokesman for Cambridge Health Alliance, said in a statement that the organization “wholeheartedly supports efforts to honor the memory of Laura Levis and advance ways to improve safety for patients across the state. We look forward to both the continuing dialogue with stakeholders and the insights from members of the health care community.”

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Hospital officials did not comment specifically on the proposed legislation.

Jehlen said she filed the bills on DeMarco’s behalf because she was moved by his story.

“There are lots of regulations about hospitals, and these are just simple ones,” she said. “These make sense.”

Jehlen expects hospitals might resist the legislation, particularly the proposal to lift the liability cap.

The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association has not yet taken a position on the bills.

“While we have not yet analyzed the details of the specific legislation, MHA and our members support efforts to ensure patient, visitor, and worker safety at all hospitals,” Michael Sroczynski, senior vice president for government advocacy at the hospital association, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with state and community leaders to advance appropriate endeavors.”

The bills are among thousands that lawmakers may consider this legislative session; only a small percentage are expected to become law.


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