Medication mistake leaves 20-year-old surgery patient a quadriplegic

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Photo and video reminders of a life once full of promise are everywhere — the handsome young man alongside a beautiful blonde, the star on the dance floor at a "quinces" party, the jokester making everyone laugh at a backyard birthday celebration.

Raul Otero's life now is spent in bed or specially designed wheelchairs, his brain so badly damaged he cannot walk or speak or follow simple commands.

The sound of his mother's voice, and her animated hand gestures, bring out a smile from an otherwise expressionless gaze.

Otero's condition and the care he will require for the rest of his life are the result of a medication mishap at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. Otero had survived a bad motorcycle accident — doctors amputated his left leg above the knee and removed his spleen.

But he was alert and preparing to be released to a rehab center in April 2003 when hospital staff took him for an MRI, a diagnostic test that requires the patient to be placed in a cylindrical machine.

Otero became agitated, and a doctor over the phone prescribed a powerful drug in a dosage that "was sufficient to paralyze the patient completely, making him unable to move or breathe on his own," according to state records.

The drug, in combination with other medications Otero had been given at Memorial, caused his heart to stop beating normally, said the family's attorney, Bradley Winston of Plantation.

"I heard, 'Code Blue, MRI' and I began running and screaming, 'Something happened to my son!' " recalls Otero's mother, Ana Delgado. "A nurse told me that his heart stopped, and they revived him. He was in a coma."

Otero was left a quadriplegic. He had just turned 20.

Life would never be the same for the popular young man or his close-knit family. A native of Havana, Cuba, Otero had no shortage of friends — he was on the invitation list to a score or more "quinces" parties, a coming-of-age tradition in Latin culture, and had a steady stream of girlfriends while attending Miami Springs High School, his mother said.

After graduating, Otero worked as a baggage handler at Miami International Airport and hoped to one day turn his computer savvy into a high-paying job.

For a while after the accident, Otero's many friends visited often, but the well-wishers have since dwindled. His mother gave up her job as a hairstylist to be a full-time caretaker, and her marriage to Otero's father crumbled under the strain of their son's tragedy, ending in divorce, she said.

"We went through a lot,'' Delgado said.

Her days now consist of tending to her 28-year-old son with help from a nurse's assistant, a physical therapist and a housekeeper.

Otero is incontinent and can only eat food that is liquified in a blender. He responds to familiar voices with his eyes and can laugh, but his only other verbal communication is an occasional moan.

Relatives stop by regularly and watch television on the big-screen TV in his room. His favorite show: "America's Funniest Videos." Otero's mother sometimes takes him to the beach or a park for a stroll in his wheelchair. Every March, the family celebrates his birthday with a pig roast.

Proceeds from a multiple-defendant lawsuit the family filed help pay for Otero's care.

The doctor who ordered the medication, Lawton Tang, and his employer, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, settled for $2 million. Tang, who is now a plastic surgeon in Pasadena, Calif., could not be reached for this story, and a Mt. Sinai spokeswoman said the hospital had no comment.

The South Broward Hospital District, which owns Memorial Regional, agreed to a $2.2 million settlement.

The district uses Otero's case "as a teaching tool … to improve care,'' said spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin. It also has incorporated more patient safety procedures, such as bar code technology on patient ID bracelets that alerts staff to risks and side effects of medications, she said.

Otero still requires occasional hospitalizations and visits to the doctor at least twice a week. His mother never leaves his side.

"As long as I am alive, I will never leave him alone with any doctor again,'' Delgado said. "I've even had arguments with doctors who tell me to wait outside, but what happened will never happen again."

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