Did a Hospital's Medication Error Cause Your Loved One's Heart Attack?

When 62-year-old Michael Thompson had a cardiac stent procedure at his local hospital in north Texas, he and his wife Sharon believed that the worst was behind them.

About a week earlier, Michael saw his cardiologist because he had new chest pain and shortness of breath when he took short walks. His cardiologist scheduled him for a stent placement at the cardiac catheterization lab (cath lab) to open a blocked coronary artery - a condition sometimes called the “widow maker.”

Unfortunately for Michael, his procedure was scheduled over a holiday weekend. The interventional cardiologist who placed the stent said everything went well and ordered a prescription for Plavix. A nurse told Michael and Sharon that it was a “life and death thing” for him to fill the prescription and take Plavix every day.

Plavix (clopidogrel) is an antiplatelet medication that is critically important for patients who have just received a coronary stent. By preventing blood clots from forming inside the stent, Plavix maintains blood flow to the heart muscle and reduces the risk of a heart attack or sudden cardiac death in the days and weeks after the procedure. Cardiologists often prescribe Plavix in combination with aspirin for up to a year after stent placement.

When Michael went to his regular pharmacy that evening after leaving the hospital, he was surprised when the pharmacist told him that they hadn’t received a Plavix prescription for him. The pharmacy was closed the following day for the holiday, so Michael went back the next day and again learned that the pharmacy had no Plavix prescription for him. Read our article about why holidays in the hospital are extra risky and why holidays are a good time to avoid hospitals.

Over the holiday weekend, Michael and Sharon tried calling his cardiologist and the hospital, to no avail — they were told to call back Monday. Tragically, though, on Monday morning Michael suffered a massive heart attack at home and could not be resuscitated. The cause: a blood clot inside his new stent.

How Plavix Works to Prevent Stent Clotting

Coronary stents are small, wire mesh tubes that are inserted into narrowed or blocked coronary arteries to prop them open and restore blood flow. While stents can be lifesaving, they also introduce a new risk: stent thrombosis, or the formation of a blood clot inside the stent.

The highest risk for development of stent thrombosis is in the first few weeks to months after stent placement, before the stent becomes fully “endothelialized” or covered with the patient’s own tissue. During this vulnerable period, blood platelets can stick to the exposed metal of the stent and form a clot that completely blocks the artery.

This is where Plavix comes in. As an antiplatelet drug, Plavix inhibits the ability of platelets to clump together and create clots. By making platelets less “sticky,” Plavix significantly reduces the risk of early stent thrombosis and its potentially fatal consequences.

Studies have shown that taking Plavix plus aspirin after stent placement can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular death by over 25% compared to aspirin alone. For patients with acute coronary syndromes who receive stents, long-term Plavix therapy can cut the risk of stent thrombosis by more than half.

Widow Maker Heart Attacks and the Importance of Plavix

Michael had an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) caused by a clotted stent in a major coronary artery. This deadly type of heart attack is often called the “widow maker” because they’re highly lethal, with in-hospital mortality (death) rates approaching 10% even with prompt treatment.

When a widow maker heart attack is caused by stent thrombosis, the diminished or absent blood flow to a large portion of the heart muscle can cause rapid and irreversible damage. Patients may experience sudden, severe chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Without immediate restoration of blood flow, the outcome is often fatal.

This is why the prompt initiation of Plavix therapy after stent placement is so critical. By minimizing the risk of early stent thrombosis, Plavix gives patients the best chance of avoiding a catastrophic heart attack in the weeks and months after an interventional cardiology procedure.

Hospital’s Duty to Ensure Continuity of Care

What happened to Michael is not just heartbreaking — it represents an unacceptable failure by the hospital nursing staff and interventional cardiologist to ensure continuity of his care after discharge. Both The Joint Commission, a major healthcare accrediting organization, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services require hospitals to have processes in place for the accurate and timely communication of discharge medications to outpatient providers, including pharmacies. Learn what no one tells you about hospital discharge planning.

For high-risk medications like Plavix, the stakes could not be higher. Hospitals must have fail-safe systems to ensure that these prescriptions are promptly transmitted and filled, with adequate patient education on their critical importance. In Michael’s case, the hospital’s breakdown in this process cost him his life.

Holding Hospitals Accountable for Medication Errors

When hospitals fail to meet their obligations regarding discharge medications and death or severe injury results, they can and should be held liable through a medical malpractice lawsuit. In Texas, the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits is typically two years from the date of death, with some exceptions.

To successfully pursue a hospital medication error case, representation by a skilled, experienced medical malpractice attorney is of paramount importance. A knowledgeable lawyer will thoroughly investigate to determine all potentially liable parties, which may include:

  • The hospital and its nursing staff for failing to ensure the prescription was communicated to the pharmacy
  • The prescribing physician, if he failed to adequately stress the importance of the medication to the patient or did not handle the prescription correctly
  • A clinic or physician group that employed the prescribing physician

The attorney will also need to retain qualified experts to review the medical records and determine whether the lack of the medication more likely than not caused the patient’s death or injury. Learn what you should know about pharmacy and medication errors.

Damages available in Texas medication error lawsuits may include:

  • The patient’s medical bills related to the injury or death
  • Funeral and burial expenses in death cases
  • The patient’s physical pain and mental anguish
  • Loss of the patient’s earning capacity (wages or income)
  • Loss of care, maintenance, services, support, advice, and counsel to the patient’s spouse and children
  • The surviving family members’ mental anguish and loss of companionship

For cases involving ongoing care needs, a life care plan expert may be consulted to calculate the anticipated medical and support costs over the patient’s lifetime. This ensures that families receive full compensation for the significant expenses involved.

Get Help from a Trusted Texas Medication Error Attorney

Medication errors are far too common and the consequences can be devastating. If you believe that a hospital or healthcare provider’s negligence in handling a prescription caused severe harm to you or a loved one, do not wait to seek legal guidance.

An experienced Texas medication error attorney can help you understand your rights and options for holding the responsible parties accountable. While no amount of money can undo the suffering caused by a preventable medication mistake, a successful lawsuit can provide vital financial support to help your family move forward. Schedule a free consultation with an experienced lawyer today to discuss your potential case.

Robert Painter
Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.