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Jury awards $1.3 million in death of baby at St. Christopher's

A Philadelphia jury awarded $1.3 million on Tuesday to the estate of a baby boy who died in 2011 after undergoing complex heart surgery at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

Adrian Wilson and his mother, Bianca.
Adrian Wilson and his mother, Bianca.Read moreTucker Law Group

A Philadelphia jury awarded $1.3 million on Tuesday to the estate of a baby boy who died in 2011 after undergoing complex heart surgery at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

By an 11-1 vote, the jury found that Adrian Wilson's death was caused by an excessive amount of calcium administered by anesthesiologist Veronica C. Swanson.

Attorneys for the boy's estate had decided to drop the hospital as a defendant in the case, heard in Common Pleas Court, but the sides stipulated that the doctor was acting as the hospital's agent.

Asked what that meant regarding the payment of damages, attorneys for both sides referred questions to the hospital and its owner, Tenet Healthcare Corp. of Dallas. In an email, hospital spokeswoman Kate Donaghy disputed the use of agent and did not respond to a request for clarification.

The hospital stopped performing nonemergency heart surgery more than four months ago, pending an internal review. Asked why the program was still suspended, Donaghy said, "We will reach out to you when we have more to share."

In February, an Inquirer review of insurance-claims data found that from 2009 to 2014, 24 percent of newborn babies died after undergoing complex heart surgery at St. Christopher's. Nationally, the mortality rate for such patients is about 10 percent.

In a subsequent analysis, the newspaper found that these newborns - patients less than one month old - spent far longer recovering in the hospital after surgery, raising the risk of infections and other complications.

Adrian Wilson was born with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, meaning the left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped.

He underwent a difficult operation called the Norwood when he was 2 days old, on May 26, 2011, and initially appeared to be faring well, according to medical records cited during the six-day trial before Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns.

But surgeons waited 11 days before closing the surgical incision on his chest, concerned that his repaired heart was swollen and might not tolerate the closure.

After the chest was sutured shut June 6, Swanson administered 400 milligrams of calcium over a half-hour to help the heart beat more strongly. But the heart soon stopped beating entirely, and physicians needed 13 minutes to revive the child. He died nine days later.

Achintya Moulick, the surgeon who performed the Norwood procedure, wrote in the child's medical records at the time that the boy had suffered a "hypercalcemic cardiac arrest" - meaning his heart had stopped due to high calcium levels.

Witnesses called by J. Michael Doyle, Swanson's attorney, testified that the calcium dose was not excessive, and that the baby died because his heart defects were especially severe. In addition to the underdeveloped left heart, he also had an unusually narrow aorta, among other problems.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Joe H. Tucker Jr., the attorney for the child's estate, acknowledged that Adrian was still sick following the Norwood surgery, but said he had a chance of recovering.

"They robbed him of that chance," Tucker said. He declined to comment on the verdict. Asked if an appeal was planned, Doyle said, "We're exploring our options."

Swanson came to St. Christopher's in March 2011, according to a hospital news release at the time - just a few months before she was called on to care for Adrian Wilson.

She earned her medical degree from Northwestern University and completed a fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology at Boston Children's Hospital, the news release said. Immediately before coming to St. Christopher's, she was chief of pediatric cardiac anesthesia at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.