Read Peter DeMarco’s tragic account of the preventable death of his wife, Laura Levis, and you will feel horror and deep sadness for the unnecessary loss of life. And then you will feel outrage. Levis suffered an asthma attack two years ago, went to Somerville Hospital, and later died after she was unable to get inside the emergency room, even after she called 911.
The story, published in the Globe Magazine, underscored the need for changes: to the emergency response system that failed Levis, to the accountability and transparency requirements for Massachusetts hospitals, and to the never-say-sorry culture of too many providers that amplifies the anguish of family members.
The emergency response technology in place at the time of the incident was out of date. When Levis encountered a locked door at the hospital, she called 911 using her cell phone. But her call was answered by a regional state police dispatch center instead of going straight to Somerville police, who, more than likely, would have responded faster because they knew the area. Then the dispatcher who rerouted her call to local responders failed to relay critical information related to her exact location.
Recently, Somerville police implemented Wireless Direct, a state system that allows them to answer 911 mobile calls directly rather than receiving them through a regional center. Somerville joined Boston, Burlington, Nantucket, and more than 150 communities in the state that have made the switch.
Even though our smartphones are equipped with the latest GPS technology, our 911 infrastructure remains embarrassingly obsolete and can still misjudge a person’s whereabouts by hundreds of feet. Next Generation 911 is a national push to upgrade the legacy technology powering our emergency response systems; it will improve location capabilities and allow callers to send photo and video to dispatchers. Massachusetts has made the necessary upgrades, but wireless carriers are lagging behind.
Another remarkable element in Levis’s case is that Somerville Hospital violated federal law, got caught, and yet paid only a small price. Federal authorities determined that the institution denied Levis access to emergency care by not doing enough to find her, even though she lay unconscious outside the ER. The hospital settled and paid a $90,000 fine to the government. How do such slaps on the wrist keep hospitals accountable?
Then there’s the lack of explanation. DeMarco happened to be a reporter who could spend time uncovering the facts of his wife’s death. What about those who aren’t able to devote 10 months to investigating a wrongful death? And yet, despite what DeMarco found, closure and justice remain elusive. “I have close to 200 pages of her medical reports from that day, and I still don’t know what really happened” on the hospital’s end, he said.
DeMarco repeatedly tried to get answers from the hospital, but it wasn’t until after the Globe article was published, and right before a report about it was set to air on “NBC Nightly News,” that the hospital responded through its parent company, Cambridge Health Alliance. The company apologized. “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,” the statement read.
In the medical community, the “apology movement” has gained momentum precisely because, in most cases, families want answers and to hear an apology from practitioners. DeMarco and Levis’s family are still owed that. Maybe DeMarco will get that Tuesday, when he finally meets face to face with hospital executives.
The lessons from Levis’s death should not be lost on anyone. Now it’s up to officials in charge of emergency response systems and hospitals everywhere to act.