Okay, time for EMS lesson 101: you don't have to be a Paramedic to know that dead people don't breathe. You might already be aware that dead folks can't focus on other people moving around them. And cadavers absolutely cannot squeeze the hands of loved ones standing nearby. Good. We've got that out of the way.
Yet for well over two hours in a Buffalo New York hospital 3 years ago, after young Doctor Gregory Perry pronounced Michael Cleveland dead, his grief-stricken family members watched all of those things happen, again and again. So now comes the family's lawsuit.
And who can blame them, really?
According to the suit, when Michael's wife Tammy and other family members pleaded with Doctor Perry to come back to the room and see what Michael was doing, the doctor repeatedly refused. Their patient continued to show signs of agonal breathing. Doctor Perry continued to brush off the family's concerns. They said Perry seemed irritated. "He didn't take the time for us at all, He just told us that my husband passed. He couldn't take a second and put a stethoscope on his chest and show me that he wasn't breathing. I don't understand that."
Finally, Tammy got him to come look at Michael's neck veins, which were throbbing. Even a non-medical person could see the patient had a pulse. The doctor appeared shocked, and said, ""Oh my God! He's alive."
This, after 150 minutes. Hmmm.
In fact, so much time had gone by that the Niagara County deputy coroner had time to drive quite a ways to get over to DeGraff Memorial Hospital. And when he got their he understated the obvious:
"Dead people don't move."
Sadly, not long after that, Michael Cleveland was transferred by Paramedics to the more sophisticated ER at Buffalo General Medical Center. And there he really did die, from a massive cardiac injury that might have been successfully treated hours before.
According to the court record, Cleveland's death was the result of physician negligence. The defendants - Doctor Perry and DeGraff Memorial - say they performed within accepted medical care protocols. They argue that the delay in treatment didn't impact Cleveland's chances of survival, and would have made no difference in saving his life.
What they haven't said - yet - is how, "Oh my God, he's alive!" fits into their protocols.
The Cleveland's family's argument is simple: "the bungled declaration of death seriously delayed treatment that could have said the patient. They pronounced him and left him for dead in the ER."
According to The Determination of Death by the New York State, the criteria for cardiopulmonary death is 'An individual with irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions is dead. Cessation is recognized by an appropriate clinical examination.
Clinical examination must show the absence of responsiveness, heartbeat, and respiratory effort,'" A medical expert wrote this in his findings: "Based on the foregoing factors, Doctor Perry should not have pronounced Mr. Cleveland dead at 8:29 p.m. since he clearly did not meet New York State criteria for death, and clearly did not have irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory function."
After the mistake was recognized and Cleveland was transferred to Buffalo General, he received the proper care for an artery that was 100% blocked. But a crucial window of time had been missed, according to the lawsuit.
So now, a New York State Supreme Court judge will hear arguments on whether the case should move forward.
And so it goes, day after day, in the Twilight Zone of American medicine.