Children’s Hospital | The Orange County Register |
“‘Fifty-six children who are fighting cancer had the rug pulled out from under them by the institution that was supposed to be helping them,’ says one attorney
Families of five young cancer patients sued Children’s Hospital Los Angeles on Thursday, Aug. 19, over the 2019 malfunction of a cryogenic freezer that destroyed stem cells from dozens of children.
The suits, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, allege the 1988-era freezer began breaking down decades ago and that staff recently deactivated an alarm on the device that was supposed to alert them when it was becoming unstable.
“What happened at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is tragic. And it was completely avoidable,” attorney Adam Wolf said. “Fifty-six children who are fighting cancer had the rug pulled out from under them by the institution that was supposed to be helping them. The stem cells were destroyed as a direct result of shocking and intentional misconduct by CHLA.”
In a prepared statement, the hospital said it would perform stem cell recollection on the patients at no extra charge.
Hospital ‘deeply sorry’
“We remain deeply sorry for the loss of blood stem cells resulting from the failure of a freezer used to store unused cells collected in the course of caring for these patients, and we apologize for our mishandling of outreach to the affected families,” the statement said.
“For the past year, the hospital has made every effort to ensure freezer reliability, security, and safety. This has included replacement of the freezer that malfunctioned, performing an upgrade on our sensor monitoring and alert system, double-checking all power supply sources, increasing our maintenance schedule and training the engineering team and laboratory staff on the new system.”
One of the families suing are the parents of 7-year-old E.F., who suffers from a rare and aggressive cancer called “high risk/stage four neuroblastoma.” He was first diagnosed in 2014 at the age of 13 months.
By that time, the cancer had spread throughout his body. The day E.F. was diagnosed he had emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor, and he remained in the hospital for nearly a month. E.F.’s cancer has relapsed three times.
Wolf said stem cells are saved to replenish the patient’s supply after harsh chemotherapy. Harvesting the cells is a painful process, one in which children complain that their bones are exploding, Wolf said. That pain was exacerbated by the destruction of the stem cells no longer available for E.F. and the other children.
The hospital downplayed the incident in a September 2019 apology letter to the affected families, saying hospital oncologists did not feel any further action was necessary for the patients. The reality, Wolf said, was much different.
‘Lifeline and safety net’
“E.F.’s stem cells were both a lifeline and a safety net for him and his family. Having these stem cells available provided them with vital peace-of-mind that they were protected now and into the future. CHLA destroyed that,” he said.
Timothy Wratten, the father of E.F., added: “Our son has been fighting cancer since he was 13 months old, and it’s unthinkable that CHLA would use an ancient cryogenic freezer that should have been replaced decades ago. The fact that they turned off the alarms on this freezer when our son’s stem cells were being held in there is just inconceivable to me.
“Nothing can replace our son’s stem cells that were destroyed that day, but we can fight beside our son to hold CHLA accountable and make sure this never happens again,” Wratten said.
According to Wolf, the hospital has known since 1999 that the freezer needed to be replaced. But CHLA continued storing E.F.’s stem cells in the freezer long past its life expectancy. CHLA’s “complete disregard” for E.F.’s stem cells was compounded by its decision to intentionally disable the alarm system that was intended to alert CHLA personnel if the temperature in the freezer rose to unsafe levels, he said.
In the summer of 2019, the alarm on the CHLA freezer sounded repeatedly before it was disarmed.
Wolf said E.F.’s best option now is “to hope and pray.”
“His dose of chemotherapy can ravage your body and may not be possible without reintroducing the stem cells,” he said. “It’s horrific.””
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