New HBO Documentary “Bleed Out” Shines Light on Medical Errors

The new documentary “Bleed Out” provides an infuriating first-hand account of a routine surgery that went horribly wrong and changed a woman’s life. The documentary, which was released on HBO this month, dives into the third most common killer of Americans – preventable medical errors. According to a study released by Johns Hopkins University, medical errors kill 250,000 Americans each year.

The harrowing documentary follows Judie Burrows, who went in for a routine hip replacement surgery almost a decade ago and is now unable to speak, broke, and suicidal. According to her son, Steve Burrows, comedian and documentarian, his mother fell down in November 2009 and broke her hip. After spending eight days in a Wisconsin hospital without any plan of care, the hospital finally performed X-rays and rushed the woman into heart surgery. Unfortunately, the doctors in charge of caring for Judie did not consider her daily blood-thinner medication and the patient ended up losing half of her blood during the surgery.

In her dire state, the surgeons and hospital staff put the weakened and unstable Burrows into an “electronic intensive care unit” or eICU. An eICU uses a sophisticated set of cameras and monitoring tools to allow an off-site doctor to monitor a patient in real-time. The eICU, however, was not set up properly for Burrows and, according to hospital staffers, the cameras were not even turned “on.” The hospital said the cameras could not be used for “patient privacy reasons” – an excuse both incomprehensible and insulting. With her heavy blood loss, Burrows fell into a coma that caused permanent brain damage. Doctors did not even notice their patient had slipped into a coma for almost two days, despite the off-site “intensive care” she received.h

In the documentary, Judie’s son laments, “This [eICU] didn’t notice my mom was in a coma for at least a day and a half and I wanted to talk to the ICU doctor who was there that night. We were told there was no doctor there. I said, ‘Well that’s insane, what do you mean?’”

Before the surgery, and subsequent coma and massive blood loss, Judie was a “vibrant, independent and adventurous woman,” according to family members. However, the routine surgery has left her a shell of herself as her health problems mounted over the last decade. Judie lost her ability to speak two years ago and, in just the last couple months, she was put on long-term hospice care for complications related to her botched surgery.

Steve Burrows says he hopes the documentary will bring more attention to medical errors and encourage patients to ask more questions, telling NPR, “You need to shop for doctors and hospitals like you’d shop for a car. You know, shop like your life depends on it because we found out that it does.”

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