|Ailee Jong, from SF Chronicle|
In a 9,200 word article in the San Francisco Chronicle (behind a paywall or free if you have Apple News), the newspaper details the tragic death of two year old Ailee Jong at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, CA.
In 2019, Ailee started complaining of abdominal pain. Her parents, Tom and Truc-Co Jong quickly took her to a hospital emergency room. The CT scan results were devastating. The little girl had a 12 cm hepatoblastoma in her liver and probable lung mets.
When they heard the diagnosis, the parents quickly searched for the best possible care for their daughter. Since they live near San Francisco, they naturally gravitated toward Stanford University and University of California, San Francisco. As they looked through the list of doctors that could treat their daughter, they noticed one pediatric oncologist who was affiliated with Stanford Children's Health and also worked at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek, which is only 15 miles from their house in Danville. This would make commuting to the hospital easier than driving 40 miles to Stanford.
But little did the Jongs know that John Muir had little experience taking care of complex pediatric liver disease. Their pediatric ICU had only been in operation for about a decade and they'd never had a liver resection like Ailee's before. According to Tom Jong, "They did say, in these words: 'We can treat her. She can be cured.'"
When Dr. Alicia Kalamas, medical director of perioperative medicine and an anesthesiologist, found out about this upcoming hepatectomy, she immediately questioned whether the hospital was capable of successfully doing the operation on such a small child. However, Dr. Jeffrey Poage, medical director of pediatric surgical services and a pediatric anesthesiologist, countered that the surgeons were up to the task. When Dr. Kalamas brought her concerns to Dr. Thomas Greely, the vice president of clinical affairs at JMH, she was told that Stanford physicians who had been consulted about the case had assured them the small hospital could handle the operation. She brought the case to Dr. Moussa Yazbeck, the chief of staff at JMH who did not question the procedure. Dr. Kalamas's contract was not renewed in 2021.
Dr. Poage was originally supposed to be Ailee's anesthesiologist for the procedure. Less than a week before the operation, he reported a scheduling conflict and two other anesthesiologists were brought in: Drs. Wayne Lee and Romerson Dimla. Dr. Lee finished his fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins in 2017 while Dr. Dimla completed his fellowship at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles in 2019.
On November 12, 2019, Ailee entered the operating room at 7:30 am. By 9:30 am, the anesthesiologists documented that the estimated blood loss was 345 ml, significant for a 24 pound patient with a total blood volume of 800 ml. They noted that they had already transfused four units (1,261 mL) of PRBC and one unit (222 mL) of FFP.
Ailee's body temperature started to drop, going below 95 F. With all the blood products her potassium level went from 4 in preop to 5.6. At 12:10 pm, she went into severe bradycardia then asystole. They were able to resuscitate Ailee by 12:30 pm. Echocardiogram showed no PE or air embolism. Instead of stopping the surgery, the surgeons continued with the resection.
The anesthesiologists noticed blood emanating from the endotracheal tube, mouth and nose of the patient. Labs at 12:32 pm showed Ailee's potassium had jumped to 8.2, a critically high level. Then 15 minutes later, she had another cardiac arrest. An operating room nurse desperately searched for help and found Dr. Poage, the medical director of pediatric surgical services and "begged him to come to the OR." He threw his anesthesia colleagues under the bus and refused to get involved.
The surgeons continued with the operation despite the second arrest. She was now bleeding profusedly everywhere and the anesthesiologists kept pumping more PRBC and FFP. By now, the anesthesiologists stopped documenting the amount of blood products they were giving. Ailee's heart stopped again. Several times during the resuscitation, the ETT fell out, requiring the anesthesiologists to reintubate her while chest compressions were taking place.
When the surgical team finally realized the operation was futile, they went to the waiting room to inform the Jongs and asked for permission to stop the resuscitation. The parents refused and demanded to see the little girl in the operating room. They were informed that that was against policy but relented.
When they walked into the OR, they noticed a stack of bloody towels on the floor three feet high and a nurse doing chest compressions. The room smelled of blood. They said Ailee was unrecognizable. Her head was massively swollen and blood was seeping out of her eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. After almost five hours of CPR, she was declared dead at 5:12 pm.
The lawsuit the Jongs are bringing against the hospital complained that the anesthesiologists did not transfuse an adequate amount of FFP to allow her body to clot properly, leading to the massive hemorrhage. They also said that too much PRBC was given, leading to the critical hyperkalemia. The lawsuit claimed that "By 12:32 p.m., Alee was massively poisoned by the anesthesiologists."
This story illustrates that there is more to an operation than just the surgeon. It takes an entire ecosystem to successfully perform surgery. John Muir Health was not candid with the Jongs when they assured them that the hospital could do the hepatectomy despite internal warning flags raised by staff. The anesthesiologists, who only recently completed in their pediatric anesthesia fellowships, probably had not done such a complicated case since they finished training. The Jongs were wowed by the hospital's decor and amenities but were not given relevant information about the experience of the hospital and its staff in doing pediatric liver resections. Just a sad case for all involved.