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Damage Control

Damage Control
By: Angie Vineyard - 10/20/2003

Planned Parenthood has a problem on their hands. It isn’t their first, nor will it be their last.

One of their clients, Holly Patterson, died on Sept. 17 after she followed their instructions for a medical abortion in Hayward, California. Apparently, clinic personnel gave Holly, who was 7-weeks pregnant, her first prescription of mifepristone on Sept. 10 and told her to administer the second prescription of misoprostol to herself at home without a doctor’s supervision, a violation of FDA regulations. Holly experienced severe bleeding and pain on Sept. 14, so her boyfriend took her to the Valley Care Medical Center in Pleasanton, where the 18-year-old was sent home with painkillers. She returned early Sept. 17 and died hours later from septic shock caused by a massive systemic infection. The assisting physician told Holly’s father that fragments of the fetus were still in her.

Immediately, the Planned Parenthood PR campaign moved into place, as if they were familiar with tragedy and were on a routine mission. Their speeches were polished, their words refined. They had to be. Their bread and butter was being threatened. They sought to give assurance to the public but deep down inside, they had to know that this could be bad for business.

“Until we’re able to examine the medical records, and piece together from the medical records exactly what the sequence of events was, we will not be able to know why this woman died,” said Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) New York headquarters. “It may be totally unrelated to the medical abortion.”

She’s playing politics, trying to calm the storm of protest that may ensue if Americans learn the truth about the danger and risks of RU-486 through this story. And technically, Cullins is right; we don’t know anything yet. The Almeda County coroner was still examining Holly’s body when Cullins made those statements. But deep down inside, Cullins has to know that a vivacious 18-year-old who her father said “seemed happy and healthy” doesn’t just walk into a clinic for an abortion and die seven days later from septic shock. So Cullins reached for the spin.

“It’s really safer than carrying a pregnancy to term,” she said of RU-486, the drug the FDA hurriedly approved in 2000 under intense political pressure.

And as other officials made statements and the press conference wound to a close, the lawyers were getting ready. They’ve already been called up, like relief pitchers down by double digits in a pennant race. They know the drill. Save Planned Parenthood. Save the business, cut a deal if necessary, with undisclosed terms and under the radar screen of hungry reporters, but do something and take care of the mess.

Planned Parenthood knows how bad this can be, especially Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, who offered their services to Holly. And if they ever do forget, the only reminder needed is a handful of names names of women who have sued for botched abortions, negligence, malpractice and won, either in the courtroom or at the table.

Luisa Rakadroka. “J.B.” Esther Velgado-Chan. Julie Blattman. Linda Michaelis. Jennifer Metzger. Kimberlie Coleman. And the list goes on.

Julie Blattman went to an Oakland, California clinic for an abortion. But she got a lot more than she paid for a blocked fallopian tube, acute peritonitis and fragments of the fetus left inside her womb from a septic abortion. She sued and Planned Parenthood settled out of court in October 1983.

Linda Michaelis went to the Planned Parenthood of Contra Costa where Drs. Prentus Willson and Jack Kennedy performed an abortion on her in 1982. Linda sued a year later for medical malpractice after suffering bodily damage and undergoing corrective laparoscopic surgery. She would also need further hospital and medical treatment long after the trial. Planned Parenthood settled out of court in July 1984.

Esther Velgado-Chan never wanted an abortion. All she wanted was to take the four months of maternity leave her contract with Planned Parenthood promised her. Esther was a medical assistant and reproductive health specialist at the clinic in San Francisco and they granted her request for leave, which she took beginning October 31, 1994. She delivered her baby on November 11 and wasn’t scheduled to come back to work until March 1, 1995.

But on January 19, a clinic supervisor called her into the office and fired her, claiming her position had been eliminated. The position had not been eliminated. In fact, Planned Parenthood began advertising immediately to replace Esther. She sued for breach of contract, sexual discrimination, breaking the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and violating the California Fair Employment Practices Act. Planned Parenthood settled out of court with Esther in 1996.

A 28-year-old Yugoslav immigrant, simply called J.B. in court documents, sought an abortion in October 1997. Sadly and tragically, neither J.B. nor the clinic personnel knew that J.B. was pregnant with twins and that only one of the fetuses was aborted. J.B. returned to the clinic two weeks later and made subsequent calls complaining of pregnancy-like symptoms. Told her symptoms were normal, J.B. finally demanded a urine sample in February 1998. The very same nurse who told J.B. her condition was normal came back horrified with the news that she was still pregnant. By that point, the fetus was nearly six months old so Planned Parenthood apologized and rushed her out the door to a provider who was licensed to do second trimester abortions. An ultrasound revealed that the remaining fetus had only one arm and one leg; the second abortion took three days.

“She is like a shattered human being,” J.B.’s attorney told the San Francisco Examiner, adding that his client had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When the case went to trial, attorneys for Planned Parenthood refused to turn over documents containing communication between Planned Parenthood Golden Gate and PPFA headquarters regarding J.B.’s case, or documents relating to other lawsuits against it for botched abortions. They also refused to answer interrogatories.

A judge ordered Planned Parenthood to provide the requested documents and sanctioned them to pay $10,000 for the extra costs J.B. incurred to obtain the information. Planned Parenthood appealed the sanctions, asking for a new trial but their request was denied. J.B. was awarded $672,610 in 2001for damages, but a California law capping non-economic damages reduced the amount to $250,000.

In a multi-million dollar business, the settlements are pocket change to Planned Parenthood or they could be smaller pieces of an imminent avalanche about to fall on an unregulated industry. Some day the mess may be too great to clean up.

Accused of perforating uteruses, slashing bowels, misdiagnosing clients, failing to explain risks, causing permanent sterility and pelvic inflammatory disease, Planned Parenthood has seen it all and just about paid for it all. But no amount of money they could offer her family would ever bring Holly Patterson back.

When Planned Parenthood’s attorneys are able to compare clinic notes with a copy of the Almeda County Coroner’s report, they will scour them with eager eyes and a couple of game plans already in mind. And if it looks as bad as they think it will, and if Planned Parenthood is as negligent as they fear they are, Holly Patterson’s father will probably get a phone call with dollar signs on the other end of the line before the grass has even grown back on his daughter’s grave.

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