Exclusive: Five women suffered prolonged miscarriages, severe infections and emotional trauma at Mercy Health Partner when staff neglected patients health to uphold religious directives against inducing delivery, report reveals
The woman inside the ambulance was miscarrying. That was clear from the foul-smelling liquid leaving her body. As the vehicle wailed toward the hospital, a doctor waiting for her arrival phoned a specialist, who was unequivocal: the baby would die. The girl might follow. Induce labor immediately.
But staff at the Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon, Michigan would not induce labor for another 10 hours. Instead, they followed a situate of directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that forbid discontinuing a pregnancy unless the mother is in grave condition. Physicians chose they would postpone until the woman presented signs of sepsis a life-threatening response to an advanced infection or the fetal heart stopped on its own.
In the end, it was sepsis. When the woman delivered, at 1.41 am, physicians had been watching her temperature climb for more than eight hours. Her infant lived for 65 minutes.
This story is just one example of how a single Catholic hospital risked the health of five different women in a span of 17 months, according to a new report leaked to the Guardian.
The report, by a former Muskegon County health official, Faith Groesbeck, accuses Mercy Health Partners of forcing five girls between August 2009 and December 2010 to undergo dangerous miscarriages by giving them no other option.
All five girls, the report says, had symptoms indicating that it would be safest for them to deliver immediately. But instead of informing the women of their options, the report says, or offering to transfer them to a different hospital, physicians apparently out of deference to the Mercy Health Partners strict prohibit on abortion unilaterally decided to subject the women to prolonged miscarriages.
As a outcome, research reports claims, several of the women suffered infection or emotional trauma, or had to undergo unnecessary surgery. None of the women were pregnant beyond 24 weeks, when an baby can survive outside the womb.
The report has not previously been made publicly available. And it offers a disturbing look at how religion restrictions may interfere with emergency care. Catholic control of US hospitals has ballooned in the last 15 years, and with it, patient advocates caution, the risk that the US Bishops prohibits on abortion, contraception and sterilization will avoid thousands of women from receiving critical healthcare. A 2013 tally found that 381 out of 3,786 of the countrys hospitals were Catholic, meaning they followed the Bishops rules for healthcare.
Healthcare watchdogs have documented isolated instances in which Catholic hospitals denied girls family planning or sterilization procedures. But such reports details some of the the most systematic collisions of religion and medicine ever to surface in public.
One of the women described in the complaint was given Tylenol for a potentially deadly infection and sent home twice where she miscarried by herself on the lavatory. Another woman, the report says, spent three days in the hospital and eventually required additional surgery.
The report squarely connects these events to Mercy Health Partners Catholic sponsorship. In the US, hospitals that advertise themselves as Catholic must follow a set of medical directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All physicians working at the hospital must follow church teachings, regardless of their personal faiths, and the hospital is a matter of informing its staff on the directives.
Performing, or even facilitating an abortion is proscribed. Abortion is never permitted, the directives read. Catholic healthcare institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation.
However, the directives make an exception for procedures that are necessary to protect a womans health even if the secondary repercussion is the death of the fetus. If the directives are properly applied, there should be no compromise of the wellbeing of human beings, said Marie Hilliard, the director of public policy for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
What is not clear in these five cases is how Mercy Health Partners interpreted this exception. Situating the line between abortion and moral action, says Michael Moreland, a bioethicist at Villanova University, is unbelievably complex: When a newborn is in medical distress, and the mother is in medical distress, and the directives point to an imperative to protect both human lives, those are the really difficult instances that hospital ethics committees grapple with.
According to the report, a hospital executive told county health officers that at Mercy Health Partners, as long as there is a heartbeat, induction of labor is not an option in a Catholic institution unless the mothers life is in jeopardy. But the executive heads, Joseph OMeara, admitted that the hospital did not have a clear criterion for determining when a womans life was in jeopardy, research reports says.
The reports description of the five incidents pullings immediately from the womens medical record. Its writer, Groesbeck, was employed at the time by a Muskegon County initiative to reduce infant and fetal mortality, a chore that granted her access to medical data that are commonly confidential. Lately, Groesbeck provided the report to the Guardian.
On 7 August, 2013, Groesbeck reported Mercy Health Partners to a division of Health and Human Service. Her complaint accused Mercy Health Partners of violating the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, a 1986 act of Congress involving hospitals to provide any patient experiencing situations of emergency with stabilizing treatment.
Before going to federal authorities, she wrote in her report, Groesbeck took her concerns immediately to Mercy Health Partners. The upshot of the session was that MHP stands behind its policies, Groesbeck wrote.
A potential for fatal consequences
At its heart, the report accuses Mercy Health Partners of attaining unilateral healthcare options for the five women without their knowledge or their consent.
The females were all experiencing a rare pregnancy complication in which the membranes surrounding the fetus rupture too early. When that happens before the fetus is viable, the rupture leads to a miscarriage.
For the mother, these circumstances are not inevitably dangerous. According to the guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists( ACOG ), it is safe for many females experiencing membrane rupture to go home and monitor their condition until they go into labor.
The danger arises when there are signs of new infections. In that case, said an OB-GYN who reviewed the report on behalf of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, most doctors would utterly urge the woman to allow doctors to induce delivery. The objective is to minimize the risk of the woman developing a severe infection by removing the source.( The OB-GYN spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not personally examine the patients .)
None of the women in the report were more than 20 weeks pregnant which is several weeks before the fetus can survive outside the womb. And all five women showed signs of infection, research reports says, such as an elevated temperature or heart rate.
Yet staff never informed any of the women that there was an alternative to natural miscarriage immediate delivery or that immediate delivery is a safer option for women showing signs of infection, research reports says. One girl told Groesbeck that even when she asked medical staff to deliver her newborn, they refused.
In each incident,[ Mercy Health Partners] withheld medically indicated therapy and info from pregnant women experiencing emergency situations, the report reads. These practices not only risk life-threatening infection, infertility, and health problems, they subject girls to unnecessary physical and psychological suffering.
One woman arrived at the hospital after ensure a fetal extremity in her toilet. Staff dilated her, causing a bulging bag of waters, but rejected her request to break her water and begin delivery, research reports says.
The patient was forced to wait over eighteen hours, while distended, to complete the miscarriage naturally, resulting in retention of the placenta( a leading cause of maternal hemorrhaging and demise) and additional, and potentially unnecessary, surgical intervention to remove it, research reports says. Later, a test of the placenta was positive for infection.
Another woman arrived in the early stages of miscarriage with an elevated temperature and heart rate, the report says. After a natural miscarriage, that female also required surgery to remove the placenta which also tested positive for acute infection.
Yet another patient who arrived with signs of infection was sent home twice without appropriate intervention, the report claims. That female, Tamesha Means, is suing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in federal court for enforcing a policy that caused her to receive below-standard care.
The ACOG doctor called the hospitals actions as described in the report a pattern of substandard care.
Its not too strong to say that any one of these women could have suffered fatal consequences, she said.
Mercy Health Partner and its parent company, Trinity Health, declined to respond to detailed questions about the report and the hospitals policies for this article. But notes from a March 2013 session between Groesbeck, her health department superintendent, and OMeara, the hospital executive, offer some clues about the hospitals reaction to the report.
According to the notes, which the supervisor, Gwen Williams, took by hand, OMeara claimed that its the hospitals policy to tell women when one of their medical alternatives is a procedure Mercy Health Partners does not provide.
But even the hospital seemed uncertain about what its physicians had told these five girls. At the meeting, OMeara depicted Groesbeck and Williams an internal review of the treatment of all five women.
In cases where I have been involved, the amount of compassion and info given to the mother has been phenomenal, read the review, according to Williams notes. Her notes say the review was conducted by Dr Doublestein, a physician at the hospital. If that did not happen, then we need to improve our care.
Doublestein questioned Groesbecks conclusion that all the women were showing signs of infection. He concluded that the hospital had acted appropriately in every suit, except when doctors reportedly allowed a woman to develop signs of sepsis. In that case, Doublestein said, physicians should have given the woman the option of being transferred to a secular hospital, 45 minutes away, where physicians could induce labor. But even in that instance, Doublestein defended the hospital, saying it wasnt obvious to physicians that the woman had developed sepsis.
There is no ideal way of handling these situations, Doublestein concluded.
The Guardian submitted questions for Doublestein to the media teams at Mercy Health Partners and Trinity Health, and sent emails to a Dr Gary Doublestein, an OB-GYN is currently working on Mercy Health Partners. The questions received no response. Quoting patient privacy, Trinity Health declined to comment on Doublesteins report.
A nationwide trend
Across the country, a string of Catholic takeovers of secular hospitals has ensured that more and more doctors are following the US Bishops healthcare directives.
According to a December 2013 report by MergerWatch, a healthcare watchdog, and the American Civil Liberties Union, the number of Catholic hospitals increased 16% between 2010 and 2011. At the same time, the numbers of public, secular and other religion hospitals all dropped. One out of every nine hospital beds in the US are located in facilities that follow Catholic teachings, research reports detected, and in 30 communities, the only local hospital is a Catholic one.
I can tell you that the trend we cited in[ that] report is continuing, said Lois Uttley, one of the authors. MergerWatch is updating those figures for a report to be released early this year. Catholic hospitals have banded together to create even larger regional and national health systems, and these giant, Catholic-run healthcare systems are continuing to acquire non-Catholic hospitals.
Mercy Health Partner in Muskegon County exemplifies many of these trends. According to Groesbecks report, it is the only provider of emergency care in all of Muskegon County the result of a 2008 merger that gave Trinity Health control of the areas secular hospitals. Trinity Health ranks among the largest healthcare systems in the country. The non-profit operates 91 hospitals and had 2015 revenues of $11.78 bn. Today, the nearest hospital to Muskegon without any religion affiliation is 20 miles away.