Crime & Courts

Wesley Medical Center not at fault in 39-year-old woman’s death, jury finds

Wesley Medical Center (May 9, 2013)
Wesley Medical Center (May 9, 2013) File photo

A Sedgwick County jury has found that Wesley Medical Center and other health care providers were not at fault in the death of a 39-year-old woman.

The family of Felicia Houston, 39, who died in 2011, had sued Wesley; Parallon, a health care subsidiary of Wesley’s parent company; and Heather Knisley, a speech pathologist who had decided Houston could eat pre-blended food.

The family had sought $10 million.

Tom Warner, an attorney representing Houston’s family and two sons – now 18 and 6 years old – said he does not plan to appeal the decision. Four other defendants were dismissed from the case before trial.

Attorneys argued the case in Sedgwick County civil court for nine days and finished closing arguments Friday. The jury returned the verdict around 6 p.m. Friday.

In closing arguments, Warner emphasized the detriment of losing a mother so young.

“That’s why these numbers appear to be big, because the loss was huge,” he said.

The case primarily tilted on whether or not Houston should have been allowed to eat and drink after she had medical complications during and after a surgery at Wesley Medical Center, 550 N. Hillside.

“Her diet had nothing to do with this injury,” John Gibson, the defense attorney, said about Houston’s death.

The case

Houston originally went to Wesley for surgery to remove a benign tumor near the pituitary gland. The pituitary is a pea-size gland at the base of the brain that creates hormones and controls growth.

Houston suffered a stroke after complications during the surgery. After the stroke, Knisley, a speech pathologist for Parallon, evaluated Houston’s swallowing. She gradually gave Houston pieces of ice, water and then pudding with crushed crackers to observe how well she swallowed each.

What happened after that swallow test was at the heart of the case.

The plaintiffs say Knisley did not meet the standard of care because she did not conduct a video X-ray exam on Houston to evaluate her swallowing. The plaintiffs also say Wesley was negligent in the case because hospital workers fed Houston regular food. The plaintiffs say Houston suffocated from food lodged in her throat.

The defendants say Knisley made an accurate diagnosis and did nothing that led to the Houston’s death. The defendants also say Wesley did not do anything wrong because Houston ate food without problems and that she died from hypoxia – inadequate blood flow to the brain from the stroke.

A few days after the test, a Wesley doctor and ICU nurse found Houston unresponsive in her room. Houston was declared brain dead the next day.

Reach Gabriella Dunn at 316-268-6400 or gdunn@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @gabriella_dunn.

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