Malpractice Makes Perfect

Dr. Karl Shipman's stumble off a ladder in September 1997 set off a perilous chain of events that led to -- but did not end with -- his sudden death at age 64. The hardy, athletic internist and former chief of medicine at Presbyterian Hospital had simply broken his wrist that autumn day. But infection set in after surgery, and a series of misdiagnoses eventually led to what Shipman's family characterizes as a hellish night of unskilled care in the intensive-care unit at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital ("Doctor's Orders," March 25).

Debra Malone of Vail, Shipman's second-oldest daughter and an intensive-care nurse herself, claims that things would have turned out differently if her father had received better initial care from his own colleagues at P/SL. On the critical night of October 21, 1997, his condition had been monitored primarily by a medical intern just out of medical school and a part-time "floater" nurse who had been pulled from another floor. Shipman's condition rapidly declined; nineteen days later he was dead.

Now Malone, her mother, Claire (also a trained nurse), and Shipman's three other grown children wonder: How many families have had loved ones fall into the same tragic circumstances, but because they were less savvy than the Shipmans about the medical system, never found out about it?

Since her father's death, Malone has become an advocate for patients' rights. Furious when her complaint against the P/SL floater nurse was dismissed by the Colorado Board of Nursing, the appointed body that has the power to license and discipline nurses, Malone protested -- and the nursing board reopened an investigation into her case, she says. The Board of Medical Examiners, which governs physicians and physicians' assistants in the state, has also opened an investigation into the care provided by Shipman's doctors, according to Malone. (Colorado law does not allow either board to confirm whether an investigation has been opened or reopened; the process is highly confidential).

Now Shipman's family is taking yet another step: They will sue. Initially discouraged by their previous attorney, the Shipmans recently stumbled onto renowned lawyer Jack Olsen, who jumped at the case -- as long as he could bring along a friend for the ride. That friend is well-seasoned malpractice attorney and Boulder novelist Baine Kerr, who represented Louise Simonton in her ill-fated 1998 lawsuit against Denver neurosurgeon Dr. Karl Stecher Jr. ("Under the Knife," January 21). The somewhat flamboyant Olsen and the soft-spoken Kerr have been pals for years; in fact, Olsen, a former Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News reporter, legendary storyteller, Vietnam vet and former press secretary for Governor Dick Lamm, served in part as the model for the character of Peter Moss in Harmful Intent, Kerr's medical thriller published last April.

Malone, meanwhile, is writing her own sequel to her father's ill-fated story, one that could end up in the Colorado statutes. She was shocked to learn that many medical interns and residents -- who have finished medical school and are called "doctor" but have not completed the critical three-plus years of a hospital residency -- are unlicensed and therefore cannot be disciplined by the medical board. In fact, Colorado is one of only eighteen states in which medical residents are not required to hold some sort of license or permit to practice.

With the medical board's blessing, Malone is now researching licensure laws in other states to find "the best" to use as a model for Colorado, she says. Board administrator Susan Miller says she doesn't expect the board itself to initiate legislation this session; instead it may focus on Evergreen patient advocate Beth Gray's proposal to make it illegal for doctors to lie to the board in response to a complaint against them.

Malone is also helping others work through the existing system. Last spring she used her medical expertise to help Littleton housepainter Scott Woodard resubmit a complaint to the board regarding the medical care of his late mother, Elizabeth Liechti. The 68-year-old Swiss-born Liechti died of a hospital-acquired infection and in great pain at Porter Hospital on March 10, 1996 ("Missed Diagnosis," July 22). Like Malone, Woodard has decided that his parent's death was not the end of the story. Although it's too late for him to sue, he wants to fight on via the state medical board -- which dismissed his first complaint. Malone says the board has now reopened the case.

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Gayle Worland