On May 30, 2007, twenty-two year old Sabrina Seelig called 911 complaining that she had been vomiting, was dizzy and her limbs felt heavy. She had been working all night long on a college paper and had taken the stimulant Ephedra to stay awake. After telling the 911 operator she felt she may be experiencing poison, an ambulance came and took Sabrina to the nearest hospital in New York City, Wyckoff Height Medical Center--a hospital with a reputation for questionable medical treatment. There, hospital staff strapped her arms down to the bed and allegedly left her unattended for hours. During this time, none of her friends or family knew where she was. That night, Sabrina was found foaming at the mouth and with a racing heart.
Later that night, Sabrina's friends finally learned that she was at Wyckoff. They went to the hospital to find Sabrina in a small bed, unconscious closed off by curtains. When they saw Sabrina, she had various tubes coming out of her. What they did not know is that Sabrina had already suffered profound brain damage. They asked nurses what was wrong. Each time, they got a different answer. When Sabrina did not wake up the next morning, they knew something was seriously wrong. They called Sabrina's parents in Portland, Oregon, who immediately got on an airplane to New York even though staff told them they need to rush because their daughter was going to come out of it soon.
When Sabrina's parents arrived, they were told various specialists were attending to their daughter. However, when doctors did not seem to provide any clear answers on what was wrong with their daughter, they had Sabrina transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. There, doctors tried various therapies to help Sabrina while friends and family sang songs to her--but it was too late. Several days later, Sabrina was declared brain dead. The following day, she was taken off life support.
Because Sabrina chose to be an organ donor, her organs had been removed before the autopsy could be performed. Thus, a complete autopsy could not be performed. The medical examiner surmised Sabrina had died from "water intoxication." Generally, water intoxication means the body is overloaded with water that does not contain enough salt.
Ms. Seelig's family subsequently filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital. The emergency room doctor, Dr. Mardach, testified he asked Sabrina "what is a nice-looking girl like you doing in Brooklyn?" After giving Sabrina the anti-nausea medications Phenegran and Tigan, which experts say can act also as a sedative, she began thrashing on the stretcher. The doctor then gave Sabrina Ativan, a strong sedative, and ordered that she be placed in wrist restraints. Between 2:35 pm and 6:10 pm, there were no vital signs charted. According to the family's medical malpractice lawyer, this suggests no one was attending to Sabrina for more than three hours. At about 6:10 pm, a staff member found Sabrina with a racing heart beat and foaming at the mouth.
An expert witness for Sabrina's family, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, testified at trial that hospital staff had ignored Sabrina while she suffered hypoxia or lack of oxygen due, in part, to the various medications given at the hospital and the Ephedra she took earlier. The defense, armed with three experts, argued Sabrina had suffered a heart attack, through no fault of the doctors, from drugs she had taken to help stay awake which, they said, is common practice among some college students. In closing argument, the defense lawyer said Sabrina was to blame for her own death. After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury found in favor of the hospital and against Sabrina's family.
After trial, the New York Times conducted its own investigation into the case. In doing so, they hired an independent expert witness to review the medical records to determine whether Sabrina had died from medical malpractice. Dr. Eric Manheimer, former director of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, once oversaw one of the busiest and highest regarded emergency rooms in the country. Based on his review of the case, he concluded hospital staff failed to properly monitor Sabrina. According to Manheimer, doctors should have ordered a tube in Sabrina's airway to keep her from breathing in her own vomit and stomach acid and, also, to provide her a means of supplemental oxygen. Dr. Manheimer had other criticisms of the treatment given, including the fact Sabrina was not put in an intensive care unit for close observation. Of course, Dr. Manheimer was not running Wykoff Medical Center when Sabrina was admitted. Nor were his opinions ever introduced to a jury.
New York Times, The Short And Lonely Life Of Sabrina Seelig, July 28, 2012