How To Avoid a Hospital Mixup

How To Avoid a Hospital Mixup | You'll find this and other quick and easy life hacks and organization hacks at

It’s happened again.

“Hospital Confuses Teen Accident Survivor with Non-Surviving Friend for an Entire Week”

Remember the story of teens Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn, whose car was struck by a truck in Indiana?  One of the teens was killed instantly and the other lay in a coma for five weeks.  That would have been tragic enough, if it weren’t for the fact that the hospital misidentified the girls.   Whitney’s family buried the girl who they thought was their daughter, while Laura’s family stayed at the other girl’s bedside.  It wasn’t until the surviving girl woke up five weeks later, that everyone realized it was actually Whitney who had survived.
This time Arizona teens Abby Guerra and Marlena Cantu had an accident while driving back from Disneyland.  Abby’s parents were told she did not survive as Marlena’s parents held vigil by her bedside for one week until a belated autopsy uncovered the fact that it was actually Marlena who had died and not Abby.  Both girl’s parents not only had to experience the horrible shock of the accident and the death/critical injury of a daughter, but now their roles were reversed.  Marlena’s parents having spent the week at their “daughter’s” bedside, now have a funeral to plan.  ABC News reporters Andrea Canning & Lee Ferram’s story can be found at this link
The worst part about this story, is that the mixup was completely unnecessary.
The girls had three unique identifiers that should have immediately pointed out the differences between them, making a correct identification much easier.  They might have looked similar, but Marlena was two inches taller than Abby, still had her wisdom teeth and an appendectomy scar.
Hospitals, especially metropolitan trauma centers are extraordinarily busy.  Not only are the nurses and doctors overworked, but their immediate focus is on saving the life in front of them, not identifying victims who didn’t survive.  But – and this is a big but – when a hospital has two accident victims who are similar in age, hair and facial characteristics, they can’t just assume that they know which victim is which.
And it’s not just the family that suffers when identities are mixed up.  Treating a patient without the right medical history in mind, or worse, someone else’s, can have tragic results.  There was a story on the FOX series “House” a while back, where just this thing happened.  Two women who had similar facial features and body types were in an explosion in their office building.  One survived and one did not.  House (Hugh Laurie) and his team couldn’t figure out why the treatment they were giving their patient was making her worse.  Finally, when she was at the brink of death, they realized that the symptoms were consistent with a bad reaction to a medication they were giving her – a medication that the girl they thought they had, wasn’t allergic to.  That was when House realized that their patient was actually the woman everyone though had passed away in the explosion.  David Shore and Katie Jacobs did a wonderful job bringing this complicated, tragic story to life.
Much, much more has to be done to ensure that the victims of any accident – especially one in which the victims are similar in age and appearance, are correctly identified.  Since we weren’t there that night when Abby and Marlena were brought into the emergency department, we can’t know exactly what was said or what was done.  We don’t know that the family didn’t ask all the right questions or if they did, but the questions were rebuffed or simply remained unanswered.  We don’t know if the busy trauma staff simply set aside their normal identification procedures until later, or if everyone just assumed that every identification procedure that should have taken place, had actually occurred.
All we really know is that two families not only suffered a horrible shock and loss, but were made to live through an additional tragedy – one that was completely unnecessary.
So how can you keep hospital mix-ups from happening to YOUR family?
1. Clear Identification
Make sure that you and your family members have clear identification on them at all times, especially when away from home or on a long drive, like Abby and Marlena’s trip from California to Arizona.  We don’t know what shape the girl’s clothes or jewelry were in after the accident, but if even one of the girls had been wearing a Medic-Alert type ID bracelet, had an ICE Contact on their phones or had emergency wallet cards in their pockets or in a Shoewallet, proper identification wouldn’t have been a problem.
2. Questioning Authority
In a life or death situation, a family tends to believe what they’ve just been told.  That’s probably a very useful defense mechanism to help the mind deal with tragic news.  But in a situation like this, with victims who looked similar, someone in the family should have started asking questions.  As traumatized as the family is, they shouldn’t just blindly believe what they’re told, just because the person talking to them is wearing a white coat.  In fact one report said that the parents weren’t allowed to see the girl who had died.  If that’s true, that’s tragic.  Visually identifying a loved one is the right of every family, no matter how difficult it might be, and could have easily cleared up the mixup.  If the parents can’t physically bring themselves to make an ID (totally understandable) then a trusted relative, aunt, uncle, grandparent, should have been allowed to do it.
3. Detailing Identifying Traits.
When you update the medical histories of your immediate family members…  You do have emergency forms filled out for each family member, right?  If not, go read our blog post about how to create your Medical History Forms for your family ASAP!     Once they’re complete, make sure that you include a detailed list of everyone’s identifying traits.  Did any of them break a bone, have a surgery?  Do they have birthmarks, or identifying scars?  Eye color, height, blood type, anything that would help doctors quickly identify your loved one.  If the unthinkable ever happens, take that list to the physician in charge, or if need be, to the patient advocate or the hospital administrator and make them prove to you that the patient they’re talking about is actually your loved one.
Remember what we said earlier about Abby and Marlena’s case?  One girl was two inches taller, had had her appendix removed and one had had her wisdom teeth removed.  No matter how badly injured and swollen the surviving girl was, at least one if not all of these traits would be easily confirmed, if someone would have taken the time to do it.  They could have measured the bodies with a measuring tape, done a quick dental exam to find wisdom teeth or even ultrasound the abdomen of the surviving girl and see if she had or did not have an appendix.
When it comes to YOUR family, it’s up to you to be their advocate.  Don’t leave their care and safekeeping up to the hospital.  Just because they’re in charge, doesn’t mean they’re always right.
And while you’re here, check out our newest program/book The Backup Plan 3.0 where you’ll find even more tips, action plans and resources.
Have Fun Getting Your Stuff Together! We’ll talk later…


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3 thoughts on “How To Avoid a Hospital Mixup

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