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My Turn
Searching for Answers In Steven's Death
Steve Verdin
Publish Date: October 10, 2007

I know you're used to seeing a nurse or a physician in this space. I'm a father whose 3-year-old boy died from a lethal morphine overdose the day after he had his tonsils out. All I keep asking is why. And how. Why did I spend Steven's fourth birthday at the cemetery? Seven months after I buried my son, I've still got more questions than answers.

Routine surgery turns tragic
Steven died on Oct. 11, the morning after he had a routine tonsillectomy with adenoidectomy and bilateral myringotomy at SouthCrest Hospital in Tulsa, Okla. The probable cause of death, according to the autopsy, was morphine and codeine toxicity. Records show that my son was given Versed and acetaminophen before the surgery and 4mg of morphine sulfate along with a single 5ml unit dose of acetaminophen with codeine elixir and amoxicillin. "It is likely that the combination of these two opiates (codeine and morphine) resulted in the death of this child," says the autopsy.

Other than a speech aproxia and enlarged tonsils and adenoids, my son was a normal, healthy child with the most radiant smile you've ever seen. He loved being outdoors, going to the park and having a catch. He loved animals, pizza, Cherry Coke, Gummi Bears, watching SpongeBob and dancing to music.

I couldn't be with Steven on the day of his surgery. I watched his younger sister while my ex-wife and her stepmother took Steven to the hospital. I heard that Steven was okay when he was discharged, but come 9 a.m. the next morning, he was unresponsive. My son never woke up. He was taken to the hospital. Emergency resuscitation failed. The phone call came. "My son's dead?" I still can't believe those words.

Answers and accountability
I didn't think it could get worse, but it did. In search of answers, I met with a SouthCrest official 11 days after Steven's death. The hospital refused to provide any medical information because officials were still doing a root cause analysis of Steven's death. "Not until physicians signed off on the records," said the official, citing JCAHO regulations and hospital policy.

When I demanded to see my son's complete medical record, higher-ranking hospital officials agreed to a conference, but only showed me a partial record of Steven's medical history that had nothing to do with his surgery or the fatal medication error. I was asked to sign off on a document saying I'd seen all the pertinent information. I refused. I walked out of the hospital six hours after I arrived, knowing little more than when I arrived. (Editor's note: The hospital says it released a full copy of Steven's records to a family representative in February.)

Nothing will bring my son back, and the rest of Steven's family and I will face that fact every day for the rest of our lives. But if sharing my experience in this way convinces even one surgical facility to review its medication policies and fix them if necessary, then maybe another boy somewhere somehow will live on, to eat Gummi bears, watch cartoons on TV and have a catch with his dad.