Smithfield Herald

Family meets with hospital

Penny Whitaker hugs her mother, Caretha Whitaker, in 2000.
Penny Whitaker hugs her mother, Caretha Whitaker, in 2000. COURTESY OF PENNY WHITAKER

After meeting with Johnston Health doctors and administrators, the family of Caretha Whitaker still has few answers as to how her heart stopped for about 10 minutes with no one noticing.

Two investigations, one internal and one external, looked into Whitaker’s death, but no one at Johnston Health told her four adult children about either. She died Aug. 25, 2013, at age 66, but the family didn’t learn the full circumstances until January, when the Smithfield Herald began investigating.

In early January, the Herald told Whitaker’s children that both the hospital and a federal agency had investigated their mother’s death. Later, the newspaper told Johnston Health that it had made the family aware of the investigations. Only then did the hospital contact Whitaker’s daughter, Penny Whitaker, to say the family was welcomed to meet with hospital administrators if it had any questions.

That meeting took place Jan. 28, and all four of Whitaker’s children attended. Afterward, Penny Whitaker had this to say: “What they were trying to say is even if they revived her, she was going to die that same day anyways. For me, the meeting was just a crock of bull. We were trying to ask and get answers, and they were telling us the sames things that you have in the paper.”

No one from Johnston Health would talk about the meeting with Whitaker’s children. Instead the hospital issued this statement: “We met with the family for nearly two hours. Our goal was to share medical information about Mrs. Whitaker with her family. By the end of the meeting, it was our understanding that we had answered all of the family’s questions.”

Many questions, few answers

Johnston Health would not allow a reporter to attend the meeting, even though the family gave permission, and it wouldn’t let the family record the meeting. The Herald spoke to Penny and Mark Whitaker a few hours after they and their siblings met with doctors and administrators.

According to the federal investigation, Caretha Whitaker’s main nurse went to lunch and handed her off to another nurse. That second nurse then improperly went to go take care of another patient without telling anyone.

While the second nurse was gone, Caretha Whitaker’s heart stopped; six other people were on staff in the Emergency Department at the time, but none noticed her heart monitor alarm go off for about 10 minutes. When Whitaker’s primary nurse returned from lunch, he heard the alarm and went to check on her. ER staff tried to revive her but couldn’t.

Penny and Mark Whitaker said hospital officials apologized for two things: for the nurse improperly leaving and for not telling them about the investigations.

The Whitaker siblings asked how their mother died so suddenly, how no one in the ER heard the alarm, why no one performed an autopsy like they asked and why no one at the hospital told them about the circumstances of their mother’s death.

The Whitaker siblings said the doctors and administrators either answered in complicated medical jargon or failed to directly answer questions.

Hospital officials said Caretha Whitaker was going to die anyway – that her kidneys had shut down. Mark Whitaker then asked how they knew this; apparently, after their mother’s death, the hospital performed a CAT scan, which the family didn’t know about.

But the Whitakers said they didn’t understand how their mom had taken a turn for the worse so quickly; she had been released from the hospital just six days earlier.

Hospital officials also said they had fixed the mistakes surrounding Caretha Whitaker’s death. By the time the federal agency investigated, the hospital had already added new redundancies and technology to keep such events from happening again.

“This measure, that measure, so that somebody’s else mother wouldn’t go through that,” Penny Whitaker said. “And I said, ‘It was OK that my mother went through it?’”

Next steps

The meeting ended with handshakes and hugs, Penny Whitaker said.

The two hospital administrators stood up and said thank you, Penny Whitaker said. “But all four of us was still sitting because we didn’t quite understand that the meeting was over,” she said. And then the two doctors stood up, “and that’s when we got the message to stand up too.”

But the family left confused and upset, Penny Whitaker said.

She said they plan to hire a lawyer. “We want to get a lawyer so that he can get the answers,” she said. “Some of the answers that we asked them and they skipped over.”

“And we’re going to get some true answers,” Mark Whitaker said.