A Question of Life

Doctors told Mark and Karla Miller their unborn daughter would face a life of pain and illness. Then, against the Millers' wishes, Woman's Hospital did everything it could to keep the newborn alive. Last month, after an extraordinary trial in a Houston co

McFall: Did you discuss not signing this and letting Sidney slip away?
Miller: No.
McFall: You did everything you could to keep her alive?

Miller: I did everything I could do to prevent more damage and more suffering. If the doctors told me it was necessary, I took them at their word.

McFall: But one of the reasons was to keep Sidney alive.
Miller: Those are your words.
McFall: Did you want to keep Sidney alive?
Miller: I think that's absurd.

But McFall seemed to have little stomach for that line of questioning. The sight of a bearlike man reliving the worst day of his life, his hands twisting together in anguish as he fought unsuccessfully to hold back sobs, left some jurors in tears.

The jury was considerably less moved by defense testimony that deconstructed the proper procedures for obtaining parental consent. Nor was testimony that tried to prove Mark Miller eventually agreed to follow the hospital policy especially convincing. Jacobs, Kelley, Plavidal and Summerfield all testified that the hospital and the Millers had reached "a consensus" on how Sidney would be treated immediately after birth.

"The feeling in the meeting, what I understood by the end of the meeting, was that we had a consensus to have a neonatologist at the delivery," Summerfield said in cross-examination by Sydow. "And if Sidney was born alive, she would be resuscitated."

The problem was that, on direct questioning, no one could recall any instance when Mark Miller said he agreed to that plan. In one of numerous instances in which defense witnesses seemed to contradict previous statements, Sydow whipped out a deposition taken from Summerfield in an April 1994 deposition and began reading: "Question: 'Did the father ever change his mind and tell you that it was okay to resuscitate Sidney?' Answer: 'No.' "

According to jurors who commented after the trial, Summerfield's testimony was the turning point in the case. Indeed, Sydow, whose languid courtroom style was nonetheless riveting, frequently managed to shake Summerfield's resolve, most dramatically at the conclusion of his cross-examination of the administrator. Sydow set up his final question with a slow, graphically detailed description of Sidney Miller's condition today. "Ms. Summerfield," he then asked, "was that the best outcome for her?"

Summerfield paused for several moments, then answered, "Difficult question."

It was nearly four months after Sidney was born when Karla Miller was finally allowed to hold her first-born child in her arms. It was another four months before Sidney was discharged from Texas Children's Hospital to come home, and another three before the 24-hour-a-day nurses finally cleared out of the Millers' home.

Karla never returned to her job at Smith Barney; she stays home to care for Sidney now. Their days together begin at about 6:30 a.m. Karla carefully bathes her daughter, mindful of the shunt that lies just beneath her scalp. Then, as Sidney sits in her wheelchair, Karla dresses her, usually in bright clothes, and places a fire-engine red ribbon in her hair.

Meanwhile, Mark keeps an eye on Sidney's brothers, six-year-old Bradley and 15-month-old Jake. Out of necessity perhaps, they are fairly independent kids for their age, and even young Jake seems to understand that his sister is different, even special.

This life is not likely to change, not for Sidney nor anyone else in the Miller family. If the jury's $42.9 million award holds up on appeal, there will be enough money to give Sidney the best care for however long she lives. That will ease Mark and Karla's worries about the future.

For now, though, there are constant fears and worries that can turn to panic at any moment. Each time Sidney gets sick, the Millers' first thought is whether she has a shunt infection, which can kill quickly. No amount of money will teach Sidney to talk, to warn Mark and Karla, to tell them where it hurts. Or, for that matter, to assure them that everything is just fine.

"When I watch Sidney, I'm amazed that she's been able to tolerate all the things that have been done to her," Karla Miller says. "I know my daughter is not of this material world. I hope she's happy. I hope she doesn't feel as bad about her life as I do.

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