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Charla Aldous: Hospital Psychiatric Ward Forced to Change Supervision and Patient Care Policies

Parkland to pay $700K to family of patient who died after being pinned down in psych ER

12/6/17 – Miles Moffeit, Investigative Reporter, Dallas News

Parkland Memorial Hospital will pay $695,000 to the family of a psychiatric patient who died in 2011 after mental health aides wrestled him to the floor in what regulators later called an illegal and dangerous maneuver.

The settlement ends a civil rights lawsuit brought by the estate of George Cornell six years ago against the public hospital that serves as a medical safety net in Dallas.

Parkland officials struck the deal in recent weeks after a Dallas judge rejected their request to withhold dozens of internal documents, including notes of the hospital’s investigation into Cornell’s death.

“This felt like a long battle, but we accomplished what we wanted: to bring attention to the dangers at the hospital,’’ said Jane Pena, Cornell’s mother. “I try not to dwell on how George died. I just hope that no one else has to go what he went through.’’

Cornell’s death was the flashpoint in a series of patient-care failures that threatened to shut down the hospital earlier this decade. The Dallas Morning News found that Parkland mismanaged patient care, including for the mentally ill, for years through breakdowns in supervision, prompting federal and state investigations.

Officials with the federal Medicare program installed safety monitors; top executives were swept out of office; and the hospital spent at least $60 million to improve supervision and care.

Parkland has maintained a clean compliance record under Medicare safety regulations for at least two years, records show. In a statement, the hospital said that its psychiatric emergency room also “meets all regulatory standards as set by The Joint Commission,’’ an organization that helps the government determine whether a hospital should receive federal funding.

In February 2011, Cornell, a 49-year-old Oak Cliff man who suffered from schizophrenia and heart ailments, ran to a fire station late one evening, winded and apparently complaining of chest pain. Cornell also said he feared he was being watched.

He was taken to Parkland’s psych ER. But Cornell was soon refusing treatment and struggled with staffers. He was pumped with a combination of powerful sedatives and anti-psychotics that experts later told The News posed cardiac risks. He was placed in solitary confinement, another dangerous practice.

Psych technicians twice restrained Cornell face down for as long as 25 minutes total before he stopped breathing, records showed. Texas health regulations generally prohibit that “prone’’ hold, which can restrict air flow; it isn’t supposed to be used for longer than a minute.

Federal officials said Cornell’s patient rights were violated. As a result, Parkland revamped its practices and hired new managers for the unit.

His family filed a federal suit in 2012, alleging “gross violations’’ of his civil rights; the defendants included Parkland, a dozen employees, and UT Southwestern Medical Center, the medical school that supervises medical care throughout the hospital.

Parkland resisted efforts by The News and Cornell’s family to release internal documents about Cornell’s treatment, citing laws designed to keep evaluations of clinical care confidential.

Parkland and the medical school asserted that the hospital and its employees were immune from liability and repeatedly tried to get the suit tossed. The medical school and the staffers eventually were dropped,  but a Dallas judge ruled the suit could proceed against Parkland.

Just days before it was scheduled to go to trial last month, a judge said Parkland couldn’t shield internal records any longer, and ordered them turned over to the Aldous Walker law firm representing the family. Settlement talks were soon under way.

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Jane Pena looks at photos of her son, George Cornell, shortly after his death in Parkland Memorial Hospital's psychiatric ward. (Staff/2011 File Photo)
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