Famous Victims of Unsafe Care

It happened to them…

We present these stories so you can see how even the rich and famous have been affected by unsafe care.

Use these stories to reflect on how serious this issue is and how you can equip yourself with knowledge and tools to protect yourself when you seek care.

Serena Williams 

“It began with a pulmonary embolism, which is a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs becomes blocked by a blood clot. Because of my medical history with this problem, I live in fear of this situation. So, when I fell short of breath, I didn’t wait a second to alert the nurses. This sparked a slew of health complications that I am lucky to have survived. First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism. I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs. When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed.” 

Joan Rivers

The Joan Rivers case has been described as the “Perfect Storm” of medical malpractice in that each error, had it occurred by itself, would probably not have led to her death. However, when the errors occurred in sequence, each subsequent error in judgment compounded the effects of the previous poor decision until cardiac arrest and brain injury made ended any hope of survival.

Dana Carvey (Comedian)

When Carvey had a double-bypass operation to clear a blockage in 1998, his heart surgeon at Marin General Hospital operated on the wrong artery. Because of the error – discovered two months later – the 42-year-old comedian underwent an emergency angioplasty that took six months of recovery.

Pete Hamilton (Former Nascar Champion)

While on a 2014 holiday visit to Georgia, Hamilton fractured his left humerus just below the shoulder joint. The on-call ER trauma surgeon at Gwinnett Medical Center performed an internal shoulder procedure. Hamilton was in severe pain afterward but was assured by the surgeon that everything was fine. When Hamilton returned home to Maine, he suffered intense pain for two months. An X-ray revealed that: 1) the trauma surgeon had left a plastic drill guide in Hamilton’s shoulder; 2) two of the screws had partially “backed out” of the bone; and 3) the plate used in the procedure was not properly aligned. Hamilton needed reverse partial shoulder replacement surgery but had to wait three months since he was on heart medication following mid-2014 heart surgery. Hamilton had the shoulder replacement operation but suffered a heart attack in the recovery room.

Dick Schaap (award-winning sports writer and broadcaster)

In 2001, Schaap went into NYC’s Lenox Hill Hospital for routine hip replacement surgery. He never left, dying three months later from acute respiratory distress syndrome. His family filed a lawsuit, alleging the operation should have been postponed since a chest X-ray taken shortly before surgery showed that Schaap’s lungs had been weakened by prescription heart medication known to cause pulmonary toxicity that he’d been taking for over two years. The jury found the cardiologist liable and awarded $1.95 million in damages. 

Julie Andrews

After a trip to a doctor, Andrews learned she had non-cancerous nodules in her throat. Such a diagnosis didn’t necessarily mean disaster — such nodules can sometimes be treated without surgery. But Andrews checked into Mt. Sinai Hospital to go under the knife.  As she understood it, there was no risk to her voice, and she’d be able to sing again just weeks after the procedure. Unfortunately, Andrews was left with scarred vocal cords after her operation. Scarred cords are not as pliable as healthy ones and cannot vibrate in the same manner, so their owner may sound hoarse. In Andrews’ case, her speaking voice was reduced to a rasp, and the crystal-clear four-octave singing voice that had enchanted millions was gone. In December 1999, Andrews filed a lawsuit against her doctors and Mount Sinai. It claimed she had not been told of the risks of the surgery and that the results “ruined her ability to sing and precluded her from practicing her profession as a musical performer.” There had been “no reason to perform surgery of any kind.” A statement from Andrews also noted, “Singing has been a cherished gift, and my inability to sing has been a devastating blow.” A confidential settlement was reached the next year.

Denise Quaid 

In 2007, Quaid and his wife Kimberly celebrated the arrival of healthy twins Thomas and Zoe. Twelve days later, the infants had received life-threatening overdoses of blood-thinning medication while at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center hospital to treat a staph infection. The nurse was supposed to clean their IV lines with 10 units of an anti-clotting medication that contained a very small dose of heparin. Instead the newborns were injected with 10,000 units of heparin, 1,000 times the dose they should have been given. This mistake was made twice. The massive overdoses turned the twins’ blood into the consistency of water, causing it to flow from every place they had been poked or prodded. As a result, for over a day, the babies bled profusely and suffered severe bruises from internal bleeding, all the while screaming in pain. Their blood’s inability to clot literally remained off the charts all day and into the night. It took more than 40 hours for the newborns’ clotting levels to drop into the measurable scale, eventually falling back within normal range.

Robin Williams

Williams, who would have turned 70 on Wednesday, died by suicide in 2014 at the age of 63. Two years prior, Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. An autopsy following his death, however, found that the legendary actor had been misdiagnosed and actually had Lewy body dementia or LBD, a form of progressive dementia. Williams’ widow Susan said “The massive proliferation of Lewy bodies throughout his brain had done so much damage to neurons and neurotransmitters that in effect, you could say he had chemical warfare in his brain.”

Marilyn Monroe 

On August 5, 1962, Monroe, 36, was found dead in her bedroom from a drug overdose. “On Marilyn’s bedside table was a virtual pharmacopoeia of sedatives, soporifics, tranquilizers, opiates, ‘speed pills,’ and sleeping pills. The vial containing the latter, a barbiturate known as Nembutal, was empty,” the 50-capsule bottle having been prescribed by her personal doctor, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, only two or three days before her death. As PBS NewsHour columnist and University of Michigan Professor Dr. Howard Markel explains, “What remains most cautionary to 21st century readers is that the majority of the substances Marilyn was abusing were prescribed to her by physicians, all of whom should have known better than to leave a mentally ill patient with such a large stash of deadly medications. The barbiturates that killed her are rarely, if ever prescribed, today.”

Freddie Prinze (comedian and TV star)

In 1977, Prinze committed suicide by gunshot after California doctors treated the actor “carelessly and negligently,” according wrongful death and malpractice suits filed by Prinze’s mother, widow and son. More specifically, his family alleged that Prinze’s psychiatrist “had first taken away and then returned to Mr. Prinze the .32-caliber gun with which he was shot” and that Prinze’s internist had overprescribed the powerful tranquilizer Quaalude. The cases settled in 1981, with the psychiatrist and internist agreeing to pay $750,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Christopher Reeve 

Known for his role as Superman, died from complications of paralysis (he became quadriplegic after falling in a horse-riding accident). But that wasn’t the case. What started as a bedsore, a common hazard for folks with profound mobility issues, triggered sepsis at the age of 52 at a hospital near his home in Westchester County, New York.

Elvis 

On August 16, 1977, Elvis died at age 42 from a fatal mixture of drugs. After a toxicology report showed high levels of prescription painkillers in Elvis’ body, Tennessee’s Board of Medical Examiners launched an investigation and brought charges against his personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos (a.k.a. “Dr. Nick”). The Board heard evidence that Dr. Nick had written 199 prescriptions totaling over 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics to Elvis in the eight months before he died. Moreover, the prescription count came to 19,000 doses of drugs from January 1975 until Elvis’ death.

Jaime King 

We had a complicated delivery with our first son, Oliver. It started as a home birth and resulted in an emergency C-section in hospital. One year later, when we got pregnant with our second son, Benjamin, we were surprised that, despite our traumatic birth history, the recommended plan was VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean). The UK maternity approach follows a midwifery model for low risk women and, since we had a healthy pregnancy, we were not scheduled to see a doctor throughout our prenatal care. At 41 ½ weeks, with no signs of labour, we saw an obstetric consultant for the first time. We were told that a natural spontaneous labour with VBAC was still the safest route and we were encouraged to continue daily monitoring with our local midwives and return the following week for ultrasound. Our next appointment was booked for 42 weeks plus 1 day. We never made it. At 42 weeks, we went for a third membrane sweep with our midwife hoping to stimulate labour. She monitored Benjamin’s heart rate and, after a noticeable deceleration, we were rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. His heart rate appeared to normalize, but since we were 2 weeks overdue, we needed to discuss intervention options. We decided to proceed with a cesarean which was scheduled for later that day. We were taken off monitoring and allowed to walk around the grounds. When we returned for our pre-op later that evening, we were told that an emergency C-section had come in, and our procedure had been rescheduled for the next day. Despite our protest, we were assured there were no risks to mother or baby and were advised to return home to get some rest. We were booked in for an “elective” cesarean the following morning. We never made it to that appointment either. We arrived home at midnight. At 5 o’clock in the morning, something was wrong. Benjamin had stopped moving. We rushed back to the hospital. There was only a faint trace of a heartbeat and we immediately underwent an emergency C-section. Benjamin was born at 6:30am, having suffered Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE), an injury that occurs when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and blood. Benjamin was sent to the NICU where he was selected by lottery to participate in a highly-specialized trial of Xenon Gas and Cooling Therapy for babies with HIE. Benjamin’s first MRI showed that the damage to his brain was relatively minor and localized. This meant that he might only have mild learning disabilities or physical impairments. Since the gas and cooling treatment was believed to prevent further brain damage, we eagerly awaited signs of improvement. Instead, Benjamin started having seizures. This was very concerning. We spent the next 24 hours by his side singing to him, reading stories, playing music, and caressing him. He never had another seizure, but the effects of the oxygen deprivation had taken its toll. The second MRI revealed a devastating reality. Benjamin’s  brain damage was extensive. We were told that he would be dependent on machines and would have no quality of life. On Day 5, with the generous guidance of the NICU team, we proceeded with “compassionate extubation,” allowing us the space and time to share our last moments with him. We washed him, dressed him, took him to the rooftop of the hospital and smudged him with Native American medicines. We laid him down between us in the designated holding space and fell asleep with him by our side. Benjamin gave us 8 hours to deepen our connection with him and fill our hearts with love. He died at 1 o’clock in the morning, just 5 days after his birth.

Jewel Kilcher

By the time she was 18, she was homeless and without access to clean water, Jewel developed chronic kidney infections. She went to a hospital with a kidney infection that became sepsis, but was turned away because she didn’t have insurance.  Jewel says, “and we went to all these doctors’ offices, and they’d refuse me. Antibiotics are $60 to $100.” Which, needless to say, Jewel and her mother did not have. “I’m in the car, throwing up all over myself, and my mom would get refused by one clinic after another. 

Sharon Stone 

One September afternoon in 2001, actress Sharon Stone was standing behind a sofa in her San Francisco home when she experienced what she describes as a “lightning bolt” to the head so painfully shocking that it knocked her to the carpet, where she lay unconscious. After an unknown amount of time, she came to the other side of the sofa and shakily rose to her feet. She had a throbbing headache and felt confused. As she later learned, that lightning bolt was her brain hemorrhaging from a ruptured vertebral artery. Stone does not recall injuring herself in any way. Nor did she have any known risk factors for stroke. No migraines with aura. No high blood pressure or diabetes. No family history of stroke. And she didn’t smoke. In her confused state, Stone did not think to call 911. She didn’t end up in the emergency department until 72 hours after the onset of her symptoms. Once in the emergency department, the actress underwent advanced imaging tests, including a CT scan and CT angiogram. Normally an excellent tool for detecting brain hemorrhage, the scan failed to show anything in Stone’s case. When a second CT angiogram revealed the rupture, surgeons performed an interventional procedure, during which they inserted a catheter via the groin into Stone’s ruptured artery before releasing coils to induce clotting, or embolization. The procedure, known as endovascular coiling, saved Stone’s life. When actress Sharon Stone experienced a brain hemorrhage in 2001, she had to forge her own path to recovery. In the intervening 17 years, a lot more is known about how to support stroke survivors and help them overcome common obstacles—such as depression and aphasia—to a full recovery.