Jerry Carswell had been admitted to Christus St. Catherine Hospital in Katy, Texas, with kidney stones. The previous night, he’d been talking about basketball and the upcoming presidential election with his son Jordan. The plan was for the 61-year-old to be discharged that morning.
Instead, at about 5 a.m., a phlebotomist entered Jerry’s room to draw blood and found him lying across the bottom of his bed, not breathing, mottled and blue, without a pulse. Staffers performed CPR for 25 minutes to no avail. Carswell was pronounced dead at 5:30 a.m. on January 22, 2004.
Linda and Jordan rushed to Jerry’s bedside; she shrieked and grabbed her husband’s cold hands, trying in vain to stir him.
The on-call doctor suggested that the Carswells authorize an autopsy if they wanted more information on the cause of death, launching the family on a traumatic journey that still isn’t over.
Clinical autopsies, once commonplace in American hospitals, are now conducted in just 8.5 percent of hospital deaths. Grief-stricken families like the Carswells desperately want the answers an autopsy can provide. But they often do not know their rights in dealing with either coroners or medical examiners, who investigate unnatural deaths, or health-care providers, who delve into natural ones.
The Carswells’ case would play out in pathology labs, lawyers’ offices, and courtrooms for more than eight years. It led to a rare $2 million fraud judgment against Christus St. Catherine and state legislation designed to strengthen families’ entitlement to comprehensive, independent postmortem reviews.
It has not, however, led to closure or accountability. Jerry Carswell’s cause of death remains unknown. He also has not been laid fully to rest. His heart sits in a refrigerated cabinet in a hospital lab to this day.