Did preschooler Susan Holmes lose her ability to smile, swallow, move, and communicate because her breathing tube was inserted in the wrong place during her trip to the emergency room? In a mock trial at Penn State Law with pediatric medical residents and law students the case hinged on the word “because.”
“She was a joy to have,” said the witness playing the role of Susan’s mother. Before her brain injury Susan enjoyed books, visits to the library, and telling stories. Losing oxygen during her trip to the emergency room changed Susan forever, she explained. “Now she is a shell of a child.”
The jury was comprised of two psychiatric specialists, an engineer, and a registered nurse. They concluded that the doctor’s possible mistake did not cause the little girl’s brain injury. Rather, the brain injury that brought Susan to the emergency room in the first place was the cause of her current state. A few of the physicians later pointed out that Susan was likely to have a bad outcome from the moment she arrived at the hospital.
“Juror” Amanda Gavin is a medical-surgical nurse in Martinsburg, Virginia, who drove 90 minutes to attend the event. “I had never been able to watch a trial before,” she said. “I thought the standard of care was followed. It was not perfect, but it was followed.”
After polling the jury, Professor Gary Gildin
asked each of the pediatric residents and law students to comment on the experience and complimented several of the doctors on their skills as expert witnesses.
Professor Gildin and Dr. Steven J. Wassner, who organized the event, then hosted an interdisciplinary discussion on the realities of practicing medicine, the role of documentation, and whether a jury trial is the best way to achieve justice for those who suffer from medical errors. Dr. Wassner headed the residency program for seventeen years and now leads initiatives to reduce medical errors.
“Each and every time we host this event we learn something,” said Professor Gildin, who specializes in teaching trial advocacy. “This is why it’s so important for our professions to keep talking to one another.”
Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and Penn State Law held the first joint Treating Medical Errors Colloquium in March 2010. Since then Dr. Wassner and Professor Gildin have scheduled the event each semester.
In addition to this mock trial event, legal and medical disciplines connect at Penn State in other ways. The Children’s Advocacy Clinic
at Penn State Law hosts medical students from Penn State College of Medicine. The Law School’s Center on Children and the Law
also collaborated with Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital on the Look Out for Child Abuse
website, a resource on child abuse law, definitions of abuse, and reporting requirements, specifically designed for Pennsylvania residents.The medical and legal communities at Penn State will also collaborate through the newly formed Penn State Hershey Center for the Protection of Children
, which hosted a kick-off event on March 22. The Center for the Protection of Children will coordinate research and teaching efforts on addressing child abuse.