By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It was so early it was still dark out when Chad and Shani Walter woke up on the morning of November 27, 2001, in their three-bedroom home in Humble. They got in their car and drove down Highway 59 South to Houston. The plan was for Chad to drop Shani off at Memorial Hermann Hospital near downtown, and then Chad would continue on to class at the University of Houston's law school.
Just six days earlier -- the happiest day of their lives, they say -- Shani had given birth to premature twin boys. She and Chad named them Grant and Nathan.
The boys had arrived ten weeks early, but doctors told the parents, both 29, that the babies were strong and the prognosis was good. The twins would have to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for a few weeks, but they would both go home eventually. Shani, a secretary, and Chad, a second-year law student, were concerned that the babies were small. They say all the tubes and NICU equipment frightened them. But they trusted the doctors and they were thrilled to have twins. Both of them wanted a big family -- maybe four or even five kids someday.
"I thought we were off to a really good start," says Shani, who spent each day in the NICU with her boys after they were born.
But soon after Shani got to the hospital that Tuesday morning, things began to fall apart. After Shani arrived she noticed that Nathan, the healthier of the two, had developed a rapid heartbeat. It was around 210 beats per minute. Feeling panicked, Shani asked the hospital staff several times what was wrong. By mid-morning doctors said they suspected some kind of infection and put Nathan on antibiotics. He eventually had to be intubated. Around 10:30 a.m., Shani left the NICU to pump some breast milk for her sons. When she returned, Nathan had been upgraded to Level 3, the area of the NICU reserved for the most critical babies.
"It was chaos; the whole day in my mind was chaotic," says Shani. "I was crying. I was worried all the time."
Still, the hospital staff didn't seem to think the situation was one of life or death. Nathan was passing urine and was responsive. He still looked like he was going to be okay.
After school, Chad joined Shani at the hospital. As required by hospital policy, the couple left the NICU during the shift change. When they walked back in a bit before 7 p.m., they discovered a film crew complete with a producer, two cameramen and a soundman walking around the NICU. Shani noticed that two of the crew members reeked of cigarette smoke.
Shani and Chad say they were approached by a woman holding a clipboard. It was a consent form, the woman explained. She told the young couple that the film crew was following around the physician on duty in the NICU, Terri Major-Kincade, for an ABC documentary about the doctor. Although the couple didn't know it at the time, the crew was collecting footage for what would become ABC's summer reality television show Houston Medical.
Shani and Chad say the woman spent no more than 30 seconds explaining the consent form. In fact, their names were already filled out on the piece of paper and all they had to do was sign it.
"We thought, 'We have to sign this consent because our kid might get in the film because they're filming [Major-Kincade] working on him,' " says Chad. "We thought, 'Maybe he'll be in one or two frames of this and then they'll move on.' We had no idea what it was going to turn into."
And besides, they say, they were exhausted and focused on their sons. They believed that a reputable hospital like Memorial Hermann wouldn't let in just anyone. And although Chad and Shani are quick to praise Major-Kincade's work, they say that at the time they worried that if they didn't consent, the doctor might not spend as much time with their babies as she would with infants whose parents allowed them to be taped.
"We were intimidated," says Shani.
The Walters signed the form. Major-Kincade checked on Nathan, but she still wasn't too concerned. The baby was apparently doing well enough for the doctor to suggest that Chad go home to feed the couple's two dogs and prepare for school the next day, and for Shani to get some much-needed rest. Around 10 p.m., Shani left the NICU to go lie down in a private room. The film crew stayed behind.
"I said, 'He's not going to die on my shift,' and I sent the dad home," remembers Major-Kincade.
But just a few seconds after Shani Walter lay down and closed her eyes, a nurse burst through the door.
Nathan had coded, the nurse said. He was in full arrest.
Shani leaped into the air and went running down the hallway to the NICU, screaming the whole way. At first, the hospital staff would not allow her in to see her son -- they wanted Major-Kincade to be able to focus on Nathan alone. The film crew, however, was permitted to stay inside the NICU and continue taping. Eventually, the nurse let Shani into the room.