Doctors vs. Parents: Who Decides Right to Life?

Following surgery, Sabrina Martin's condition went south. And then, her family says, Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital set about arranging for her demise.

Darrin Murray was racing around the recovery room at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in a blind panic. His teenage stepdaughter was in agony and no one was doing anything to help her.

Two days before, 14-year-old Sabrina had come out of surgery for a sinus infection that had developed into a brain abscess. Doctors assured her parents that she would fully recover in a matter of weeks from what appeared to be a successful and relatively simple surgery.

But by the next day, Sabrina began feeling nauseous and complained of incredible pain. Nurses dosed her with morphine, but the drug didn't seem to help. Begging, "Help me," and "Please, do something," Sabrina began vomiting. She tore away at the dressing on her head and began pulling at her central line I.V.

Before her surgeries, Sabrina's future looked bright.
Before her surgeries, Sabrina's future looked bright.
Caring for Sabrina at home is not always easy.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Caring for Sabrina at home is not always easy.

In response, nurses doled out another round of morphine and strapped Sabrina's arms down with restraints.

On this day, Murray had already dashed out to the nurses station pleading for assistance four times in the last 20 minutes, but each time all the nurses told him was that they were paging the doctor and couldn't do anything without a physician's consent.

Suddenly, Sabrina's body seized. Her back arched, she rose up and gasped, then collapsed back into the bed. Murray says everything went quiet, everything except the terrifying dead-hum of her heart monitor. She had flat-lined.

"I almost had a heart attack because I thought she'd died," says Murray. "Everyone came in there and pushed me out of the room and ran a tube down her throat. I was panicking and crying, it was so awful."

The medical staff were able to revive Sabrina, and a doctor performed emergency brain surgery to reduce the swelling pressure in her head.

Sabrina's mother, Beatrice Lopez, who had to be at work, sped over to the hospital and arrived while her daughter was still in the operating room.

"Right after the second surgery," she says, "we went to see Sabrina and her head was so enlarged it just didn't look like her. A lady doctor appeared who we had never seen before, and she gave us the worst news that we could hear. The doctor told us that Sabrina'd had two strokes and because of them, she was in a coma that they didn't think she was going to come out of. And if she did, she would be a vegetable."

As shocking as the devastating news of their daughter's condition was, Lopez and Murray say it would not compare to what happened next.

Within about three days of the second surgery, Lopez says, doctors "started talking about our options. And we started getting scared, because the options were not good."

Lopez and Murray say that doctors and hospital staff began pressuring them to withhold treatment and feeding, which would ultimately starve Sabrina to death. To the parents, this was unacceptable. They wanted their daughter to live.

"I was very disappointed with the way Memorial Hermann handled things," Lopez says. "They put it out on the table that we were being selfish."

Murray and Lopez accuse the hospital staff, doctors and nurses of doing everything they could to try to end Sabrina's life during the ensuing six weeks, including:

• Refusing to implement simple procedures such as giving Sabrina feeding and breathing tubes that would have enabled the parents to take their daughter home and care for her themselves,

• Attempting to turn relatives and friends against Lopez and Murray by encouraging them to persuade the parents to withhold treatment, all the while violating federal privacy laws by discussing Sabrina's healthcare information,

• Entering two separate do-not-­resuscitate orders against her parents' wishes, and

• Threatening the family with convening the hospital's ethics committee, which under Texas law can overrule the family's wishes and withhold life-support treatment from a patient.

"It was like we were caught in a bad dream," says Murray. "We couldn't believe this was happening."

Lopez and Murray allege that the hospital staff did not properly monitor Sabrina's sodium levels after the first surgery and did not give her the fluids she needed that they say would have prevented the strokes. Instead, doctors and nurses kept giving Sabrina morphine, a drug known to deplete sodium.

As Lopez and Murray saw it, the hospital and physicians that caused their daughter's condition were now trying to end her life. And it seemed like there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Terrified, Sabrina's parents called the nonprofit organization Texas Right to Life, which referred Lopez and Murray to an attorney. The parents were able to transfer Sabrina to Texas Children's Hospital, where Lopez says Martin received treatment that doctors at Memorial Hermann had refused to give, treatment that saved her life.

Now, two years later, Lopez and Murray are suing Memorial Hermann and Martin's doctors and nurses for allegedly failing to properly treat the teen. The family's lawyer, Robert Painter, says that in his opinion Memorial Hermann and the doctors and nurses working on the case wanted Sabrina to die to bury the evidence of malpractice and limit the potential damages in court. So far, Memorial Hermann and the others have denied any wrongdoing.

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