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Parents, Hospital Settle For $7.5m

Apr 25, 2002 | The Boston Globe The parents of 5-year-old Leyda Uluam of Marlborough finalized a $7.5 million malpractice settlement this week, among the largest in Massachusetts history, for botched care after a 1997 hernia procedure at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham left the girl a profoundly brain-damaged quadriplegic.

The young Guatemalan-born couple, barely able to speak English, was mystified and devasted by the tragic turn of events, according to the family's lawyers, and decided to file a lawsuit only after an anonymous phone caller suggested they contact an attorney. The ensuing five-year investigation by their legal team uncovered numerous medical lapses by the child's physicians, as well as evidence that many of the medical records documenting her care were altered or destroyed, according to the Uluams' attorneys. The case was set for trial on Tuesday, a jury ready to hear testimony, when the final defendant decided to settle the case that night.

''Our hearts go out to Leyda Uluam and her family. This unfortunate incident took place five years ago when the hospital was under different ownership and management,'' said MetroWest spokeswoman Melinda Upton. For-profit health-care giant Columbia/HCA owned the hospital in 1997, later selling it to its current owner, Tenet Healthcare Corp., also a for-profit firm.

Columbia/HCA paid $4.5 million in the settlement, with three individual doctors paying another $3 million, a massive sum possible only because the state's $20,000 cap on malpractice awards against hospitals does not apply to for-profits. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which tracks civil settlements, yesterday said the settlement ''is believed to be the largest present-value payout in a single publicly announced medical malpractice case in state history.'' Though many similar settlements remain confidential, the Uluams' lawyers said the recent revelations of long-hidden clergy sex crimes inspired them to insist on public disclosure.

''The magnitude of the tragedy is enormous. It involved a healthy 5-week-old baby who underwent a minor surgical procedure which took 40 minutes and she should have been home in a couple of hours,'' said Marc Breakstone, one of the family's lawyers.

In January 1997, Carla and Edgar Uluam took their newborn child to the hospital, then called Columbia MetroWest Medical Center, for a simple umbilical hernia procedure to rectify a protruding belly button.

Following the surgery, an anesthesia complication caused bleeding in the infant's airway - not a serious problem, according to the Uluams' attorneys, who provided the Globe with a summary of their case. Her doctor ordered that nothing be placed in her mouth. But a nurse gave her bottled water, and almost immediately Leyda gagged and coughed up blood. The doctors placed a breathing tube through her mouth, into her airway. A team readied her for transfer to Children's Hospital's intensive care unit. But quickly they recognized that her heart was slowing down.

The breathing tube had somehow pushed into her right lung and was pumping in air too forcefully, said the Uluams' lawyers. Air filled her chest cavity, pushing against her tiny heart, sending the infant into cardiac arrest. Blood flow to her brain halted. Intense neurological damage ensued.

Today, Leyda, 5, cannot control any part of her body. She must be fed through a tube. Her mental capacity is frozen at the level of a 6-week-old infant. Her parents' lives have been devoted to her care, which they handled alone until they qualified for a state-funded nurse four months ago, according to their lawyers. With the best care, her physicans have said, Leyda may live in this state to age 40.

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