A plaintiff who wanted more than just money

When two medical tragedies struck Susan Sheridan’s family in Eagle, ID, one of her responses was typical and, most would say, entirely justified. She contacted an attorney and sued the health care providers for malpractice. But Sheridan took a different path from most plaintiffs by focusing more on quality improvement than the amount of money in the settlements.

Eight years ago, her son was born healthy but suffered kernicterus, brain damage from untreated jaundice, at 5 days old. Despite the concerns expressed by Sheridan’s husband and herself, the medical staff insisted that the jaundice would clear up on its own. By the time the severity of the jaundice was realized, the baby had suffered irreversible brain damage. "Because of cost-cutting efforts and relaxed guidelines, they had stopped testing babies for their level of jaundice. Everybody told us that kernicterus didn’t happen anymore in this country and they didn’t need to do anything," she says. "They called him the canary baby’ and joked about how yellow he was."

Now her son has severe cerebral palsy, can’t walk, is hearing-impaired, and has crossed eyes and malformed teeth. Sheridan sued for monetary damages to cover the cost of caring for her child and received a multimillion-dollar settlement. But she also wanted to ensure that the same tragedy would not happen to other families for wont of an inexpensive test. "We asked our attorney to seek that and we were told that wasn’t what attorneys did," she says.

Sheridan had to push her own attorney, but eventually the hospital agreed to a financial settlement and her request that she be able to meet with the hospital CEO to discuss the need for kernicterus testing. They met, and Sheridan recently learned that the hospital significantly revamped its testing policies. Sheridan’s settlement did not include any ironclad commitment to test babies with jaundice, but she says she is reasonably satisfied with the outcome.

Meanwhile, her husband developed a pain in his neck and physicians found a mass in his spine. The tumor was removed, and he was told it was benign. Six months later, a surgeon found another mass in the spinal canal the size of his fist. This time, the mass was cancerous and had grown into his spinal cord.

The Sheridans were led to believe that the benign tumor had become cancerous, but the experience with their son left Susan skeptical, so she checked her husband’s medical records for the first procedure. "Lo and behold, the pathology report made it to his medical record but not to his neurosurgeon or to us. The medical record for the first surgery said he had malignant sarcoma," she recalls. "So the pathology got lost, and somehow it was never communicated to me and my husband that he had cancer. He went untreated for six months."

After nine months of surgery, seven major surgeries, and other extensive treatment, Sheridan’s husband died from the cancer. Sheridan sued the hospital, but she refused to settle without the opportunity to meet with the hospital’s CEO to address the failing that led to her husband’s death. After two trials and mediation, the hospital agreed to work with Sheridan to establish a best-practice model for how to communicate malignant pathology findings to patients. That effort is ongoing, with the intention of creating guidelines that can be implemented on a nationwide basis.

"Initially, they wondered what I was up to and why I would be asking for something like that instead of just taking the financial settlement," she says. "The majority of people asking for something like this just want to make sure it will never happen again, because the pain we go through is huge. And we want to play a role in preventing that for somebody else."