THE LAST DAYS OF TAMMY GENTRY

THE SURGERY WAS SUPPOSED TO GIVE THE FORMER MARCH OF DIMES POSTER CHILD A LIFE. BUT A SERIES OF ERRORS INSTEAD LED TO HER DEATH.

The CIGNA staff physician who treated Tammy says his own nurses didn't give him key information on the seriousness of the infection. The home-health nurse assigned to look after Tammy complained that there was "no discharge plan" for Tammy and said she couldn't find a CIGNA doctor who would take responsibility for the girl's care.

But after two and a half years of litigation--involving testimony from dozens of witnesses and medical experts, more than 100 hours of depositions and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees--all the parties agreed to settle the case rather than go to court.

While the agreement earlier this year included a ban on disclosing the amount of the settlement award, for the parents of Tammy Gentry, it was a hollow victory.

"I have lived through her death over and over for four and a half years," says mother Luann Gentry. "I believe justice has been done. Tammy, in her short life, accomplished a lot."
@rule:
@body:Even at age 8, when the March of Dimes photo was taken, Tammy had a composure and a smile you could not easily forget. Her friends and family describe her as bubbling with energy.

"I remember Tammy as being very vivacious," says Paula Mindiola, of the local Spina Bifida Association. "Always curious and wanting to know about everything."
It was Tammy's smile and spunk that led the March of Dimes to feature her as its official Arizona Poster Child in 1982 and 1983.

"She was absolutely enthusiastic," remembers Bob Perry, the March of Dimes director at the time. "She was very articulate."
March of Dimes organizers wanted Tammy to "go national"--travel around the country, raising money for the charity--but her parents didn't want her to take time away from her schoolwork and her other activities.

She met former governor Bruce Babbitt, received a tennis racquet from the now-deceased Arthur Ashe and accepted an award as Handicapped Student of the Year from the then-mayor of Phoenix, Margaret Hance.

Although she was confined to a wheelchair, the tiny child--only three feet seven inches--loved to swim and fish, and she competed in the Frisbee throw and the wheelchair race at the Special Olympics organized by Phoenix College.

She donned pompoms as a cheerleader for several of her two older brothers' sports teams. She even tried out for Desert Sands Junior High's track team.

"She came in dead last," remembers her mom. "But she tried."
While she didn't make that team, Tammy had no trouble in school. Despite all the time she spent in the hospital, she remained a B student in the mainstream program, in the same grade as other children her age.

And she was popular. "She had lots and lots of friends," says her mom. "She went to school dances. She talked on the phone all the time."

Around the block, neighbors built ramps up to their homes so Tammy could visit. The ramps are still up.

"She was normal in every way but her spina bifida," says Luann.
@rule:
@body:Luann Gentry gave birth to her third child on November 29, 1974, her husband Jerry's 27th birthday.

The couple had little reason to suspect that their daughter would be one of only 25 babies born each year in the Valley with spina bifida. The family's two sons were healthy, and no other relatives suffered from the disorder, thought to be hereditary.

Ultrasound testing that can alert parents to the condition early in a pregnancy wasn't performed routinely then. Had it been, doctors might have noticed a kink in the fetus's upper spinal cord, which probably developed sometime within the first weeks of Luann's pregnancy.

Shortly after Tammy was born, doctors began to warn the family that the little girl would not survive.

Tammy's degree of spina bifida, known as myelomeningocele, occurs in only one out of every 1,000 births. It is one of the most costly of all birth disorders to treat.

Before Tammy was a year old, she had gone through six surgeries to treat the hydrocephalus common in spina bifida patients. Doctors were able to successfully install a shunt in Tammy's brain that drained excess spinal fluid into her stomach. In earlier decades, children who suffered from hydrocephalus (then wrongly known as "water on the brain") often died before they reached their early teens.

Tammy was also born with a defective kidney, which later failed altogether. And she had a chronic urinary tract infection because her bladder didn't function properly.

As Tammy learned to "walk" using her arms and hands, she would bump into things. With no sensation in her lower body, she broke her fragile leg bones several times.

But as she grew older, surviving surgery after surgery, doctors sounded their death warnings less and less frequently.

When Tammy was 7, her doctors began to recommend major surgery to correct Tammy's potentially life-threatening kyphoscoliosis. The surgery would straighten her spine, which had formed a hump in her upper back. Uncorrected, her spinal cord could crowd her major organs, especially her lungs and kidneys.

"She would turn into a pretzel," says Lura Halstead, the head nurse at a spina bifida center where Tammy was treated while she was growing up. "She would get to an age where she'd have absolutely no chance to survive."
By the time Tammy turned 13, she had just about stopped growing at a little more than three and a half feet tall. After consulting with doctors, Tammy and Luann decided that the summer before Tammy entered the eighth grade would be the best time to undergo the surgery.

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