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Patient advocacy: a baby’s life is saved

Ok, so now that I’ve given you a really good example of the dangers of VIPs bullying doctors, I will present the flip side of the coin: a good kind of patient aggressiveness.

A 10 month old baby was vomiting and febrile, and her new mom brought her in to the hospital for an evaluation. She was told that it was gastroenteritis (my favorite diagnosis of late) and that the baby would get over it soon enough. The young mother insisted that she knew her baby, and that the infant had never been this fussy and that there really did seem to be something more serious at play. Again, she received eye rolls from everyone from technicians to nursing staff to physicians. “New mothers are so histrionic,” everyone thought.

But as the evening wore on, the baby became fussier and fussier, and began scratching herself all over. The nurses came in and tied her chubby arms and legs down so that she wouldn’t tear her skin. The mom wrung her hands all night. The doctor went home, yawning and sure that the baby would be fine in the morning.

Several episodes of violent, projectile vomiting ensued, and the mother pleaded for someone to take another look. No one would listen, as the doctor had written in the chart that the baby had gastroenteritis, so that was what it was.

In the middle of the night, after the physician had gone home, the mom insisted that the nurses page him to come back to the hospital. The nurses initially refused, but the mother told them that she would personally make their night miserable if they didn’t comply. The annoyed physician came back to the hospital against his better judgment, and found the mother and baby looking far worse than when he’d left. In fact, the baby’s vitals were becoming unstable and her abdomen was quite distended.

The physician ordered an abdominal x-ray series. It showed an advanced intussusception and the belly was distended with gangrene. He knew that she was likely to die. He asked the mother if she wanted him to call the general surgeon (who had no experience with operating on babies) or if she’d like to take a chance and get the infant to an academic center in New York City that had a team of pediatric surgeons on call. Time was of the essence, but surgical expertise varied greatly between the two options. The mom could tell that the physician was terrified, and her instincts told her that she should get the most experienced doctor to operate on her baby.

A few hours later, the baby was rushed into the O.R. at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The pediatric surgeon on the case told the mother that it was unlikely that the child would live, but that he promised not to give up on the baby. At that point, the baby was septic and seizing.

In a truly miraculous turn of events, the surgeon was able to resect the dead bowel and save the baby’s life. If the baby had arrived even a few minutes later, she probably wouldn’t have made it.

So in this case, I applaud the mother for being persistent and forcing the medical staff to take a closer look at this “gastroenteritis.” In our imperfect medical system, patients and families must sometimes advocate for themselves in order to get the attention they require. This story, in particular, means a lot to me, because I still bear the abdominal scar from the surgery.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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7 Responses to “Patient advocacy: a baby’s life is saved”

  1. Anonymous says:

    After reading your story why was I not surprised to see the touching letter from your mom and her ardent support of this site? The example set by your family is an inspiration to us all. Love your mom’s “bulldog” attitude.

  2. Fabulousgirl says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, my eyes could not stop watering. I’m glad you’re leading by example for someone else to follow in your footsteps. You’ve definitely been touched by an angel:)

  3. jadeiiiis7 says:

    What a wonderful ending to a great story . I am truely grateful for your mothers persistence, because we can benefit from your voice of reason and wisdom . I had a similar experience with my son at a hospital and it is truely terrifying for a mother to know there is something wrong with their child and nobody will listen .I was fortunate that my sons pediatrition stayed on the phone with the other drs. the entire night . My sons body temperature taken 3 different ways was 107.8  I explained to the ER drs that he had an ear infection and was pulling on his left ear I think they were more freaked out by his temp being so high they were getting ready to do a spinal tap I begged them to just check the ear and Dr. Jannell told them he had a history of ear infections , when they checked he not only  had an ear infection but an abcess . I explained to them that high body temperatures ran in my family . After that I carried a medical alert tag in my sons diaper bag warning of high body temperatures and projectile vomitting .

  4. janlep says:

    This post hit really close to home.  My son nearly died at 4 days old b/c an ER doc didn’t take his symptoms, which were very similar to yours, seriously.  He turned out to have malrotated intestines and a resulting volvulus causing total blockage and an ischemic bowel.  His pediatrician fought to get him into surgery as soon as she found out the ER had blown us off, and, thank God, he’s a healthy 8-year-old now.  I have great respect for good physicians, but sometimes we patients have to challenge the white coats to advocate for ourselves or our loved ones.

  5. EmilyM says:

    You had me in tears at the end.  What a beautiful post!!!

    Congratulations on being nominated for best medical blog!!!  You absolutely deserve it and we all look forward to celebrating with you!!!!!   

  6. Donna B. says:

    Now that's a heckuva story!

  7. Donna B. says:

    Now that's a heckuva story!


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