When Peter DeMarco lost his wife Laura Levin to an asthma attack, his grief was overwhelming. Days spent in the hospital with Laura hooked up to machines, only to experience an earth-shattering loss, was too much to bear. Peter thanked the hospital for their tenderness and care during the roughest time of his family’s lives. But within a few months, a larger picture of Laura’s final moments came to light and it showed the hospital had a much bigger role in what should have been a preventable tragedy.
Laura was alone in the early morning hours on the day of her fatal incident. She and Peter were taking time away to work on their marriage, going to counseling, and living separately. In an apartment by herself, Laura awoke sometime near four am and realized she was having an asthma attack.
Normally, Laura carried an inhaler. Having managed her asthma for years, she took precautions to treat her symptoms while maintaining an active lifestyle. As a weight-lifter and hiker, who also worked out six days a week, she was used to being prepared. So when she woke up experiencing an asthma attack, she knew what to do.
That morning, Laura knew she needed to see a doctor, and conveniently, her apartment was located just a quick walk up the street from Somerville Hospital. She had to know the severity of her attack, but she probably thought she’d get her usual nebulizer treatment and a dose of the medication prednisone and feel good as new. She believed she had enough time to reach help on foot. What could go wrong?
Laura did everything right in her search for medical assistance. She climbed the hill up to the hospital on foot and at some point, she dialed 911. Somewhere during her attempt to reach help, her asthma attack crossed over from a minor issue to a life-threatening problem. Despite her proximity, the help she needed never arrived.
Laura Beth Levis died at age 34, a few days after her fateful walk to the hospital. Her husband Peter was heartbroken that something so treatable became fatal in Laura’s case. In his grief, he didn’t question the events that led up to her hospitalization. In fact, he left the experience feeling grateful for the hospital staff.
DeMarco was so touched by the way the Somerville Hospital staff had treated him, his wife, and their family in her final days that he wrote a letter thanking them that was published in the New York Times. He used his reach as a journalist to sing their praises, but he soon found out everything he knew was a lie.
Five weeks after Laura’s death, the circumstances still didn’t sit right with her uncle Robert Levis. He called the Somerville Police, who don’t normally make reports regarding medical calls, but they felt compelled to help. They interviewed the first responders and gathered evidence, stringing together a report. When the family received the report, the tragic truth was impossible to deny.
Initially, the hospital staff told Peter that Laura was found some distance away from the hospital, which was the reason she wasn’t found in time to be saved. Looking over the police report, it was apparent the staff had lied.
Laura had indeed made it to the hospital. In fact, she made it all the way to an entrance door. But it was locked and the security desk on the other side was empty. The grim revelations didn’t end there.
Peter wrote dozens of letters and made many phone calls in order to obtain the hospital surveillance footage. Ultimately he got his hands on the tape that showed Laura had reached the locked ambulance entrance to the ER, saw no one, and could only make it to the bench about 30 feet from the public ER entrance. Sitting there, she called 911.
Laura managed to tell the 911 dispatcher where she was and the seriousness of her situation through labored breaths, twice. Finally, they were able to contact a nurse at the ER to go check outside. From surveillance footage, the nurse stayed by the door and merely shifted her head around. In the early morning hours, she failed to notice Laura collapsed on the bench.
The nurse never alerted the security guards about the matter. She didn’t walk outside to see if anyone needed help outside the glow of the entrance light. Instead, the nurse told the 911 dispatcher she saw nothing. By then, Laura couldn’t respond to the dispatcher, so they tracked the location of her cell phone and made another critical error.
In an unforeseen technical error, Laura’s cell phone pinged a tower about 200 feet away from the hospital, when she was actually much closer. The Somerville Fire Department took critical minutes to search the wrong area, though they eventually spotted Laura near the ER entrance and immediately began CPR. Sadly, they were too late.
A police officer on the scene noted in his report noted the lack of response when he tried to alert someone inside the ER, “I started to bang on the glass with my ring and from in the back I heard someone yell, ‘Relax’ in a very [annoyed] tone, and then as she turned the corner and saw me she said, ‘Take it easy’ in that same annoyed tone.”
The only conclusion Peter and his family could draw was that several people had failed Laura and it resulted in her death. He went to Lubin & Meyer, a prominent medical malpractice firm, knowing that a successful settlement couldn’t bring his wife back but it would hold the hospital responsible and prevent further tragedies. He wanted to fight for Laura.
It looked like the government was on Peter DeMarco’s side, at first. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health found violations and so did the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, charging Somerville Hospital with 90K in fines. But their hands were tied from doing much more. Massachusetts law protected hospital staff and prevented fines over 100K in wrongful death suits. Peter felt deflated.
Feeling hopeless, Peter knew something still had to be done. No one else should have to suffer like Laura did when one-minute delays in emergency response are responsible for thousands of deaths a year. With a lawsuit off the table, he wondered, what could he do to save even just one life? How do you change the system?
Peter turned to legislation. “Laura’s Law,” would ensure closer inspection and monitoring of hospital entrances, in addition to proper signage and lighting. If passed, it would be the first of its kind. By the closing days of the legislative session in early January 2021, it was looking like they had a 50/50 chance of passing Laura’s Law.
The state representatives and bill sponsors let Peter know that if they wanted a win, they were going to need to make a lot of noise. Family and friends turned to everyone they could to flood the State House with phone calls and emails asking their representatives to vote in support. Their action worked. On January 5th, Laura’s Law passed.
Peter and his in-laws attended the social distanced ceremony where MA Governor Baker signed Laura’s Law. It felt like a victory that in Laura’s absence, they were able to fight to ensure others wouldn’t suffer the same tragic fate. They learned a harrowing lesson about the medical system and how your trust shouldn’t always lie in the professionals.
While negligence was to blame for Laura’s tragic death, the story of Jill and Ryan Finley shows that even diligent healthcare providers sometimes make incorrect calls. After Jill fell into a coma and was placed on life support, her husband faced an impossible choice. But when the doctors delivered the grim reality of her prognosis, a heartbroken Ryan opted to switch off the equipment that was keeping her alive.
Prior to living a medical nightmare, Oklahoma residents Ryan and Jill were as happy as ever. Ryan was plying his trade as a plumbing contractor, while Jill had a job as a loan underwriter. And as with many couples, they had their sweet little routines that they’d save for the weekends.
Jill enjoyed a little extra time in bed during those mornings, while Ryan would get some fresh air outside their house, relaxing with a newspaper. But this wasn’t the case on May 26, 2007. On that particular day, Ryan felt a strange urge to stir his sleeping wife much earlier than usual.
And when speaking to the news show Facing Life Head-On, Ryan recalled that fateful day. “[On] May 26 I woke up at 7:19 a.m.,” he said. “I remember [that] I looked over at the clock, and I went to wake Jill up, which is a miracle in itself as I never ever do that on a Saturday morning.”
But it was at this point that Ryan quickly realized that something was very wrong with his wife. “I went to wake [Jill] up, and she wasn’t [breathing],” the plumber continued. “She wasn’t responsive, and I went from talking to her to yelling at her – just shaking her.”
And so with Jill unresponsive on the bed, Ryan decided to take matters into his own hands. Shortly after calling 911, the concerned husband moved her off the mattress and made his next move. He started to perform CPR on his partner, using some of the experience that he’d picked up a decade earlier on a medical course.
“I did CPR for… it seemed like forever,” Ryan recalled. “It seemed like hours. I come to find out it was about 15, 16, 17 minutes until the paramedics got here, and they took over.” After that, the medical team put Jill into an ambulance and took her to the local hospital.
And Ryan was right behind the ambulance on that worrisome journey. “I followed [Jill] to the Oklahoma Heart Hospital in my truck, and they took her to the ER,” he told Facing Life Head-On. “[The medical team] worked on her for around 20, 25 minutes to get her stable enough where they could actually start to help her.” So, what exactly had happened to his wife?
Well, as it turned out, Jill had suffered a cardiac arrest while she was sleeping, which had led to her brain being starved of oxygen for a number of minutes. Thankfully, the paramedics were able to restart her heart before making their way over to the hospital. But the hard work didn’t by any means end there.
Jill’s worrying condition meant that she had to be placed into a special state – sometimes referred to as the “Big Chill” – in order to decrease the temperature of her body. She was wrapped up in a blanket of sorts, which helped to keep her cool. As Dr. Michael Schoeffler, Jill’s physician, explained to Facing Life Head-On, “Basically it’s an induced hypothermia where we chill your body temperature down to about 33 °C [91.4 °F].”
Dr. Schoeffler continued, “[For] all of our patients who come in with a cardiac arrest, we started a hypothermic protocol in 2003… [You’re] supported on a ventilator, paralyzed and sedated so that you can’t shiver to generate body heat.” Keeping the body temperature down, you see, is vital for a patient’s recovery after they have suffered a cardiac arrest. How so? Well, it’s all to do with the brain.
Yes, it’s the brain that benefits the most from the cooling process in cases like Jill’s. “You basically chill the body – and more importantly the brain – for about 24 [to] 36 hours,” Dr. Schoeffler explained. The objective is to hopefully avoid neurological damage as a result of a cardiac arrest.
“There’s a variety of inflammatory mediators and stresses that occur to the brain during that reperfusion from these arrests,” Dr. Schoeffler added. “[They] can do bad things to the brain itself, so by cooling that down – slowing those processes down – it’s been shown that people do better.” But what did that mean for Jill?
Well, as it turned out, things didn’t look too good for the Oklahoman. Dr. Schoeffler recalled that Jill didn’t respond to the cooling treatment at all to begin with. And while speaking to Facing Life Head-On, he described her troubling condition during the treatment.
“Initially [the Big Chill did] nothing [for Jill],” Dr. Schoeffler remembered. “We did the usual hypothermic protocol for about 24 hours, let her warm back up [and supported] her on a ventilator, and it did a few things with her blood pressure and heart rate. But neurologically you really didn’t see a whole lot of improvement.”
Meanwhile, Ryan was understandably shell-shocked. All he could do was wait outside the ER during those initial hours, anxiously wondering if his beloved wife would ever wake up. And his fears only continued to grow when one of the doctors suggested that he should start praying for her.
“My emotions were disbelief, shock,” Ryan told Facing Life Head-On. “I couldn’t believe that at 31 years old, I wake up, and my wife’s not breathing. She was 31 years old at the time; it’s just something that you really, totally never expect at this age.” And as Jill continued to show no signs of emerging from her coma, the following days proved incredibly tough for Ryan.
Still, Ryan and the rest of Jill’s family refused to give up hope. They rallied around her and faithfully stayed by her bedside as she remained comatose. Ryan would even occasionally rest in the bed beside hers, watching over her and presumably hoping for a miracle.
“I’d wake up, and it just went by so fast,” Ryan explained. “We had so many visitors, family and friends that would come up.” And he also remembers a rather emotional moment involving one of his wife’s relatives. “Jill’s cousin came to me, and he actually brought his Bible,” Ryan said.
“I believe it was the third day that Jill was in the hospital, and [her cousin] asked if it was okay if he read from [the Bible] to Jill in the room,” Ryan recounted. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be fine,’ and he read and read. He just stood in the corner and read for probably over an hour.”
And after Jill’s cousin had finished, he offered to leave his Bible at the hospital with Ryan in case he felt the desire to read it. Ryan accepted the gesture, and over the next few days he started to speak certain passages aloud to his wife – often while he lay next to her. Regardless, though, Jill’s situation was beginning to look more and more bleak.
In fact, Jill’s doctors believed that her chances of making a full recovery at that point were incredibly slim, citing the cases of previous patients. “It was grim,” Ryan admitted to Today in 2007. “I’ll put it that way. Everything they told me was grim.”
And so, faced with Jill’s dismal prospects of recovery, Ryan decided to return home. It was the first time he’d been back to his house since his wife’s cardiac arrest some 11 days earlier. Given the weight of the decision resting on his shoulders, Ryan was seemingly searching for some clarity.
“I just kind of wanted to be by myself,” Ryan told Facing Life Head-On of his decision to leave the hospital. “So I went outside, and I was walking around in the yard, just doing the things me and Jill would do together, kinda [cleaning] up the yard – things like that.” And then he revealed the heartbreaking moment that he decided to take his wife off life support.
“I can’t really explain it in words, but something just came over me. It was like a calm sense,” Ryan explained. “A calm, cool feeling came over me and just said, ‘It’s gonna be okay. Just let [Jill] go. It’s gonna be okay.’ So, I stayed home that day, and I thought about it, and I slept on it.”
Then, the next day, with his new-found clarity, Ryan went back to the hospital – but he was met by a truly desperate sight. Jill’s condition appeared to be worsening, with her coughing proving too much to take for her devastated husband. And after reflecting once more on Jill’s unbearable situation, he decided to follow through on the “sense” that he had experienced the previous evening.
“[Jill] was deteriorating; you could see it,” Ryan recalled. “She was going downhill, [so] I decided to remove her from life support and put her on hospice care.” And, unsurprisingly, this huge decision weighed down heavily on him as he prepared to say goodbye to his beloved wife.
“[Jill’s] my soulmate and my wife, my everything in this whole world,” Ryan told Today. “And it was up to me whether or not she lived. That’s a bad thing to go through.” Some two weeks on from Jill’s cardiac arrest, then, her family said their farewells, and hospital staff finally pulled the plug on June 9, 2007.
Jill didn’t pass away immediately, though, and so Ryan stayed by her side in the hospice for the next few hours. And during that period, he was informed that his partner may start showing signs of life – even if they would only indicate that her time was nearly up. But, eventually, his wife did indeed begin to stir.
“[At] about 11:45 p.m., [Jill] started getting restless,” Ryan recounted. “People told me they call it ‘the last rally.’ When a person is about to pass, they tend to regain some body function, be able to talk or move – things that they hadn’t been able to do previously. I thought that was it – that was ‘the last rally.’”
In fact, as Jill started to mumble, Ryan actually left the room, overwhelmed by the idea that he may have been hearing his wife’s last words. But while his parents stayed by Jill’s bed to watch over their daughter-in-law, one of the nurses approached Ryan and insisted that he go back in. And practically no one could’ve predicted what happened next.
Still understandably somewhat hesitant, Ryan stayed put outside the room – until his mother reiterated the nurse’s words. “I walked in, and Jill was talking,” he revealed on Facing Life Head-On. “[The] first thing she said was, ‘Get me out of here. I want to go home.’ She kept telling me that.”
Presumably stunned to be seeing his previously comatose wife awake and coherent, Ryan’s feelings of despair quickly dissipated. But he was nevertheless somewhat cautious, so he started to test Jill with some simple questions, such as asking for the names of their cat and dog. And, thankfully, she provided the correct answers in response. Then Jill had a request of her own – and it was a rather unexpected one.
“[Jill] told me that she was ready to go to Ted’s and eat, which is her favorite Mexican food restaurant,” Ryan revealed. His wife was back, then – and even craving tacos. Jill continued to come around, too, before eventually having an operation to get fitted with a pacemaker. And after having made a miraculous recovery, she reflected on her incredible ordeal.
“When I was in the coma, I don’t remember anything,” Jill told The Today Show in September 2007. “I don’t remember anything from the Heart Hospital. I do remember the big shower they wheeled me into every day. Other than that, I don’t remember anything.” She does, however, recall a few friendly faces from the facility.
“I did go to inpatient therapy, and I remember all of that,” Jill continued. “All of the nurses and occupational therapists and speech pathologists – I remember all of them. They helped me tremendously.” She ultimately returned to her regular life, too – save for some small issues with speech. But what did she have to say about her husband’s decision to take her off life support?
Well, Jill actually supports Ryan’s move to pull the plug and agrees with his reasons behind it. “I would not have wanted to live like that,” she explained to ABC News in 2007. “And so he did the right thing. He did, because they basically told him that I was going to be a vegetable.”
“I was going to be laying there in bed, you know, wearing diapers for the rest of my life, and that’s just not me,” Jill continued. And as for her remarkable recovery? Well, Jill does have her own explanation, and she credits one thing above all for saving her from death’s door.
“Honestly, I think God had a big part to play in it, or he is the reason. He’s the reason why I’m here today talking to you,” Jill revealed. And Ryan, too, agreed with that assessment during his interview with Facing Life Head-On. “I honestly feel that prayer and God brought her back,” he said.
Yet while Jill has seemingly recovered well, Ryan still harbors some fears about his wife’s health. The possibility of losing her is always in the back of his mind. And so the couple have devised a rather unorthodox routine to quell those worries. “There’s still not a night that goes by that I don’t wake up,” Ryan told ABC News. “I’ll usually kick her, and if she kicks me back, I know we’re okay.”