On April 3, 2012, an Argentine mother was grieving the death of her baby after hospital staff declared her girl dead at birth. When Analia Bouguet went to view her daughter in a coffin at the morgue, she collapsed to the ground when she discovered her baby was in fact alive. In all my experience as a medical malpractice lawyer, I have never heard of such a case in the modern era.
Although thrilled her daughter is alive, Analia is still overwhelmed over being told her daughter is dead and then seeing her alive in a coffin. Analia has aptly named her girl Luz Milagros, which means "Miracle of Light." The case gained national attention when the Argentine deputy provencial health minister announced five medical professionals involved in the misdiagnosis have been suspended. Analia does plan on filing a medical malpractice suit. A week after her daughter's birth, Analia still only had a death certificate for baby Luz rather than a birth certificate.
Hundreds of years ago, prematurely declaring someone dead only to learn the person is alive was more common. This happened, in part, because the definition of death used to be the cessation of a heartbeat (or cardiac arrest) and of breathing. Beginning in the 1900's, greater caution was taken before declaring someone dead. As a result, funerals and burials were increasingly delayed to ensure that deceased was in fact deceased. With the development of CPR and the advent of modern technologies, the old definition of death is obsolete because breathing and heartbeat can be restarted in many instances. Today, when doctors and coroners seek to determine death, they often look to signs of "brain death" or "biological death."
Misdiagnosing death is, of course, extremely rare these days--let alone prematurely placing someone in a coffin. Although there are no widely published statistics on misdiagnosing death, there are statistics on deaths caused by misdiagnosis. According to John Hopkins patient safety expert Dr. David Newman-Toker, misdiagnoses errors account for between 40,000 and 80,000 hospitals deaths per year. Originally published in the March 11, 2009 Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Newman-Toker's study found that 14% of physician errors that caused adverse events were from misdiagnosis. In releasing his findings, Dr. Newman-Toker emphasized that "the process of getting diagnoses correct is not an exact science, it's quite challenging." However, Dr. New-Toker added "[b]ut we're not performing as well as we could be. There is room for improvement."
Although an extreme example, the misdiagnosis made by medical professionals in Argentina clearly illustrates Dr. Newman-Toker's point regarding room for improvement. How doctors managed to wrongly declare Luz Milagros dead and then place her in a coffin is unclear. What is clear is this medical mistake should have never happened had they done their job properly.
Associated Press, Argentine "Miracle" Morgue Baby Improving, April 11, 2012.
Theshadowlands.net, Premature Burial, Viewed April 28, 2012.
Death, Wikipedia, Last Modified May 1, 2012.
InjuryBoard Blog Network, Honululo, Misdiagnosis and Wrong Diagnosis by Doctors Cause 40,000 Deaths Each Year, August 16, 2009.