Family sues hospital

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MINNEAPOLIS — Max DeVries was sedated and awaiting a routine surgery when he rolled off the operating table and hit his head on the floor, in the spot where doctors had earlier removed part of his skull because of brain swelling following a stroke.

The 61-year-old St. Paul, Minn. man later died and the family contends St. Joseph’s Hospital of St. Paul didn’t use proper procedures and equipment to safeguard DeVries, who was 5-feet-5 and weighed about 300 pounds.

According to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Ramsey County District Court, “The fall from the operating table was a direct cause of, or contributed to, the death of Max DeVries.”

“It’s a tragedy and it could have been avoided,” said Shawn DeVries. His father suffered a stroke Feb. 7 and on March 8 was scheduled for a routine procedure to have a lumbar drain replaced. He was expected to leave the hospital in three days for rehabilitation.

“It was another routine procedure,” Shawn DeVries said. “It was the fourth (drain) they had to replace. He was making slow and steady progress — until the fall.”

Robert Hajek, the family’s attorney, said the table’s three Velcro straps couldn’t hold DeVries.

The lawsuit contends that the hospital lacked “appropriate facilities and equipment, including wide enough tables and adequate restraints to perform an operation on Max DeVries.” The suit argues that DeVries’ weight “is not an unusual or abnormal weight for patients that experience stroke.”

With growing obesity in this country, having adequate equipment for very heavy people has become an issue for hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

In some cases, hospitals have bolted surgical tables to the floor to prevent heavy patients from tipping them over. How to care for overweight surgical patients has generated new operating-room products as well as medical journal articles and books in recent years.

Officials at the St. Paul hospital declined to comment about the lawsuit, citing patient privacy laws.

“St. Joseph’s Hospital and HealthEast Care System take this situation and this family’s concerns very seriously. We extend sincere sympathy to the family of Max DeVries,” hospital officials said in a written statement.

“St. Joseph’s Hospital and HealthEast Care System have a strong commitment to patient safety and have been nationally recognized for providing the highest quality patient care. When there are patient safety concerns, we always conduct a thorough internal investigation to ensure that our processes meet rigorous standards for safety and implement improvements that we believe will advance safety.”

Hajek said the hospital, as required, filed a report on the incident with the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Health Facilities Complaints but isn’t sure when the state will complete its review. State officials won’t say whether there is an investigation until the report is complete.

Shawn DeVries said his father’s fall could have been prevented if the hospital had used bigger straps or maybe rails. “Realistically, 330 pounds isn’t that much,” he said. “I’m 220 pounds. There are a lot of people who are this size.”

Doctors had expected to mend Max DeVries’ skull once the swelling was gone, his son said. In the meantime, he said, doctors were waiting for stitches to heal before outfitting Max DeVries for a helmet.

Shawn DeVries spent about four hours with his father before the surgery on March 8. “It was one of his best days I had with him (since the stroke),” he said. Because of a tracheotomy, his father had spent most of his time communicating by “head nods and scribbles.”

He was paralyzed on his left side after the stroke but his family expected him to regain some movement in time. “It was going to be an uphill battle but possible,” Shawn DeVries said.

The operating room fall caused “substantial additional injuries, “the lawsuit contends. Additional surgeries were performed to save DeVries’ life, the suit states.

Shawn DeVries said his father barely, if at all, opened his eyes after the fall. “He would nod or shake his head yes or no. But three days later, he was unresponsive. “We were holding out hope. We waited for things to change. But nothing did.”

Max DeVries later suffered a massive stroke, Hajek said. He died on April 13.

E-mail Mary Lynn Smith at mlsmith@startribune.com and Warren Wolfe at mlsmith@startribune.com.