Two Denver firefighters will serve unpaid suspensions for asking a doctor to pronounce a living woman dead even though they hadn’t assessed her or looked at her.
“The serious nature of this misconduct cannot be understated — the patient was pronounced, though she was in fact alive, and the medical care she deserved was delayed,” Mary Dulacki, chief deputy executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, wrote in letters outlining the firefighters’ misconduct.
Lt. Patrick Lopez and firefighter Marshall Henry on June 24 responded to a welfare check after a caller said he hadn’t heard from his daughter in several days, according to the disciplinary letter, obtained by The Denver Post through an open records request. The caller said his daughter had just had stomach surgery and it was unusual to not hear from her every day.
Denver police Officer Eugene McComas entered the home and found the woman inside. The officer told the firefighters outside that the woman’s skin was discolored, she was leaking fluids and she smelled of decomposition.
Lopez then dialed the number for the on-call emergency department physician at Denver Health Medical Center to obtain a pronouncement of death. Lopez handed the phone to Henry while the line was still ringing.
Henry relayed the police officer’s description of the woman as though he had made the observations, saying “she is bloated and obviously dead,” according to the letter. The doctor asked Henry whether the woman had a pulse or if there were signs of trauma and Henry said no, despite not having assessed her or looked at her himself.
The doctor pronounced the woman dead.
But after the firefighters left the scene, McComas went back inside the house and saw the woman moving. The officer called the fire department and an ambulance back to the house and the woman was taken to the hospital, the letter states.
Henry reported the incident to an assistant chief the day it happened, according to the letter.
Lopez reported the mistake after learning that Henry had notified a supervisor. In his statement, Lopez said the police officer did not want firefighters to enter the home, though neither McComas nor anyone else on scene remembered that being said.
Lopez apologized for the incident in his interview with internal investigators and said he took responsibility as the highest-ranking firefighter on scene.
Lopez, who has been with the department for 22 years, was demoted two ranks from lieutenant to firefighter and will serve 336 hours of unpaid suspension. Further, he will be fired if he violates another department rule within five years. During that time he will not be eligible for promotion.
Henry will serve a 240-hour unpaid suspension and his emergency medical technician certification was suspended.
“The integrity of the city heavily relies upon the faith and confidence of the public in its public safety services,” Dulacki wrote. “The embarrassing failure to the patient in this incident demonstrated an obvious compromise to that integrity.”
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