In 2005, Scott Jerome-Parks was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Doctors recommended radiation therapy to treat his cancer. Jerome-Parks agreed to this treatment, but little did he know that during his treatments the computers would be programmed improperly which would result in an overdose of radiation. The tragic error exposed Jerome-Parks to seven times the intended treatment. By the end, the treatment left him deaf, struggling to see, unable to swallow, burned, with his teeth falling out, with ulcers in his mouth and throat, nauseated, in severe pain and finally unable to breathe. He died in 2007 at the age of 43, only not from the diagnosed tongue cancer, but from the radiation overdose.
After Scott Jerome-Parks accident, the State Health Department of New York sent a warning to hospitals to “make sure the radiation field is of the appropriate size and shape.” On the same day as the warning, Alexandra Jn-Charles received a similar overdose of radiation in her first treatment for breast cancer. This type of treatment continued for 27 days. Jn-Charles was told initially that the procedure should be painless, much like an x-ray. However, by the end of the treatments the radiation had drilled a hole into her chest so deep that it exposed her ribs. She died within a month of Scott Perome-Parks.
In both the cases of Jerome-Parks and Jn-Charles, there were opportunities to catch the mistakes, but operators failed to notice the preventable errors. In June, The New York Times reported that a Philadelphia hospital gave the wrong radiation dose to more than 90 patients with prostate cancer — and then kept quiet about it. In 2005, a Florida hospital disclosed that 77 brain cancer patients had received 50 percent more radiation than prescribed because one of the most powerful — and supposedly precise — linear accelerators had been programmed incorrectly for nearly a year. Though many accident details are confidential under state law, the records described 621 mistakes from 2001 to 2008. Even more disturbing, on 284 occasions, radiation missed all or part of its intended target or treated the wrong body part entirely.
While opponents of health care reform have proposed distractions like limiting the rights of injured patients, the above stories show just how wrong-headed a proposal that is. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), preventable medical errors kill as many as 98,000 people every year at a cost of $29 billion. That’s like two 737s crashing every day for a whole year.
Instead of focusing on so-called “tort reform” and limiting the rights of people like Jerome-Parks and Jn-Charles, patient safety must come first. Read the NY Times series on radiation errors, and learn more at www.98000reasons.org.