Sandra Williams v. St. Francis Hospital is one of the most significant medical malpractice cases Bell Law Firm has ever been involved in. We represented Sandy for claims of medical malpractice that resulted after a neck surgery. Her case is one of staggering negligence, coupled with courtroom deceit. 


Sandy’s Surgery 


At the time, Sandy was 53 years old, with a loving husband and two grown boys. She worked at a local bank. She had a degenerative condition in her neck that resulted in chronic pain, bothering her to the point of seeking out medical treatment. The doctor who initially evaluated her tried some conservative methods at first, but then decided that she would likely benefit from a neck-fusion surgery – a surgery where a doctor accesses the spinal column from the front of the neck with the goal to relieve pressure from the nerve roots in the neck bones.  


The surgery proceeded as expected, it went well, and a few days later, Sandy was released to go home and begin her full recovery.  


A few days after being released, she developed a progressively worsening ability to swallow. She and her husband became worried, and they contacted the on-call doctor and spoke with Dr. Erik Westerlund. He was a partner of the surgeon who performed Sandy’s procedure. Dr. Westerlund listened to the complaints and said to take Sandy to the emergency department if things escalated, but to suck on a popsicle in the meantime. 


Instead, they drove to the emergency department at St. Francis Hospital.  


An ER Visit Gone Wrong 


Sandy exhibited pain in her neck and a gurgling sound when trying to swallow. The ER doctor ordered an x-ray of her neck, and it uncovered a large mass pushing on her windpipe forward and to the side. The ER doctor immediately called Dr. Westerlund and explained Sandy’s condition and Sandy was shortly admitted into the intensive care unit. 


Dr. Westerlund didn’t arrive until 5 hours later. By the time he arrived at her bedside, the mass in her neck had expanded to the point where it was compressing her airway and twisting it practically shut. There was merely a slit of breathing space for her to take in air. Dr. Westerlund called for a pulmonology consult, and they decided Sandy needed to be intubated. However, her windpipe was too distorted for the tube to be inserted properly. Sandy’s airway ultimately collapsed, and she became unconscious.  


Dr. Westerlund opened her neck at the bedside and stuck his two fingers into the open hole and scooped out globs of red congealed hematoma, trying to release the pressure on her airway. After trying and failing to open her airway, he called the on-call anesthesiologist for assistance. However, by the time he was able to get a tube down Sandy’s windpipe, she had been without oxygen for at least 20 minutes. She didn’t wake up for 30 days. 


The Road to Recovery  


When she did wake up, Sandy was blind and suffered an anoxic brain injury, which is a brain injury resulting in lack of oxygen. With the help of her husband, Sandy was transferred to the Shepard’s Center in Atlanta, which is one of the finest rehabilitation hospitals in the country. Over the next few months, they put Sandy through rigorous physical therapy and rehabilitation until she recovered as much as she could. 


Bell Law Firm Joins the Case 


As the two-year anniversary of Sandy’s surgery and ER visit approached, her husband wondered about the possibility of medical malpractice. He wasn’t sure if negligence had occurred but was concerned that this would be Sandy’s condition for the rest of her life. Through an attorney in Columbus, Bell Law Firm and Dr. Larry Schlachter were brought onto the case just one and a half weeks prior to the statute of limitations. 


After an initial meeting, it was apparent Sandy’s outcome was horrible for what should have been a routine surgery, an elective procedure. We suspected somebody, at some point had dropped the ball, so we acquired the medical records quickly and discovered there indeed was a case. Moving quickly, the case was filed with just a few days to spare. 


Audit Trails & Patient Records 


After moving into discovery, one of the key issues we aimed to solve was: where was Dr. Westerlund? He testified that he showed up at the hospital the morning of Sandy’s admission but didn’t come to her room immediately. He said he pulled up Sandy’s x-rays, reviewed them, and didn’t see anything concerning at the time. We didn’t believe this was the case. 


The hospital had a computer that kept track of when all x-ray files were accessed, creating an effective audit trail. After requesting those records, we looked to see who had accessed Sandy’s images to confirm whether Dr. Westerlund had gone into the system to look at the images before deciding not to visit her room upon arrival at the hospital. We learned he never looked at Sandy’s x-rays until the day she was transferred to the Shepard’s Center in Atlanta – at the point he was no longer involved in her care. 


This deceit was met with intentionally obscured evidence delivered by the defense. They redacted key information detailing Sandy’s hospital stay in an attempt to hide evidence. Despite the defense pushing the boundaries, we pressed forward.  


Moving Towards Trial 


The discovery in this case lasted a year and a half. Our goal was to move things forward to a trial. We had a change in judge, and he gave us a firm trial date. I remember having a conversation with my co-counsel, predicting this case would never go to trial because of what we uncovered during discovery. It was clear Dr. Westerlund had not visited his patient, despite a written policy requiring physicians to visit patients admitted into the ICU within 2 hours. It didn’t seem possible the defense could argue a convincing story that would show otherwise.  


We arrived on the first day of trial and went through the jury selection process. Shortly after, we called the first defendant in the case, the surgeon who completed Sandy’s initial procedure, Dr. Walsh. Not surprisingly, he was very supportive of his partner and claimed he did everything correctly. Dr. Walsh testified it was the standard of care to merely observe patients until they start having breathing problems, not just swallowing problems. He said there was nothing to do but observe her. 


However, he didn’t realize we discovered another case in which he was an expert witness a few years earlier for a scenario almost identical to Sandy Williams.  


In part 2, we learn more about the doctor’s testimony and how Bell Law Firm leveraged it in Sandy’s case.