Witness says woman could not have burned feet at hospital as med-mal trial continues

David Yates May 21, 2008, 9:24am

Jurors heard testimony from medical personnel this week in the medical malpractice trial of Connie Woods, who in a delusional state burned her own feet in flesh-eating chemicals.

Hearing commands from God, Woods was forcefully admitted to the Memorial Hermann Baptist Beaumont Hospital on Dec. 15, 2002. During her stay, Woods allegedly managed to obtain a hospital cleaning chemical loaded with alkaline and pour it over her feet, leaving nothing but black-charred flesh that had to be scrubbed off.

However, according to the nurse who supervised Woods' stay, "There is no possibility (her burns) could have happened at the hospital."

During her testimony, retired nurse Alexander said she was the one who discovered Woods' burns. She had entered Woods' bathroom to check on her and found her in the tub with a washcloth draped across her feet.

Alexander said Woods' body was checkered with bruises and upon removal of the washcloth saw that her feet were black and severely swollen. "I first thought (her burns) were shadows," the nurse said.

Alexander also said Woods told her she was feeling no pain and did not know how the injury occurred.

In his opening remarks, defense attorney James Old Jr. said that when Woods was first admitted, she was wearing thick socks and leather boots. Hospital personnel attempted to strip them off for an examination, but a combative Woods thwarted their treatment.

"You don't take clothing off a psychotic patient refusing treatment," Old told jurors, adding that his expert will testify about the way medical personnel must first gain the patient's trust before stripping the patient.

Alexander confirmed Old's remarks and testified that Woods refused to take of her boots off and was combative. Further, Alexander said she had a "nurses' feeling" about Woods and moved her to an observation room for extra attention soon after she was admitted.

Both Alexander and Old said the hospital kept Woods under tight surveillance and in a locked room.

Plaintiff's attorney Gary Cornwell, painting his client's side of the story, told jurors that somehow Woods was able to freely access an everyday floor cleaner or stripper while at the hospital and injure herself, because of lax surveillance and inadequate hospital policy.

"Connie (Woods) was hearing voices … and thought God was commanding her to do things," Cornwell told jurors. "The hospital had a duty to watch her eyeball to eyeball … there's evidence showing they didn't watch her that closely."

While questioning Baptist Beaumont hospital's former safety officer, Cornwell asked if there was a specific hospital policy dealing with keeping hazardous chemicals away from venerable patients.

The safety officer said there was but could not immediately cite a specific policy. The safety officer also said all hazardous chemicals, even kitchen cleaners, are kept under lock and key, and environmental services employees are instructed to never to leave their carts unattended while performing cleaning duties.

Cornwell and his clients contend Woods' boots were indeed taken off and put into a locker shortly after her arrival, according to medical records, and that an unsupervised Woods managed to access floor stripper.

The hospital argues that the troubled Woods poured a kitchen cleaner containing alkali, a common household chemical, over the tops of her feet before she was admitted.

Old argues that the chemical would have taken several days to develop into the type of severe 4th-degree burn that Woods suffered and that if she had hurt herself while at the hospital, the wound would have been only in its beginning stages.

Cornwell counters Old's argument by saying Wood's socks and hospital-issued booties were laced with the chemical, but not the leather boots she was wearing at admission, suggesting she poured alkaline on herself while at the hospital.

Testimony from Dr. Wolfe, the physician who mended Woods' feet, revealed her injuries could have occurred anywhere between seven days or 14 hours before he saw her on Dec. 19, 2001 – four days after she was admitted.

Dr. Wolfe testified that he could not rule out the possibility that her injuries occurred before she was admitted to the hospital. However, the doctor also said it was his responsibility to heal her, not detect when or how she was inured.

"This case is 100 percent circumstantial," Old said. "The plaintiffs cannot prove that these burns happened at the hospital. Is it reasonably foreseeable to think a patient can get through a locked door, to a locked locker to dump cleaner on her feet?"

Old continued by saying hospital staff went above and beyond the ordinary standard of care by keeping a constant watch on Woods and making sure she was locked inside her room.

The only piece of direct evidence presented so far in the trial is a statement in hospital records, not written by a nurse or doctor, that says Woods told treating nurses that she dumped the kitchen cleaner on her feet while at home.

Old says nurses were so busy treating Woods that they were unable to write the statement into the record but will testify that Woods told them she injured herself at home. Alexander also testified that she was too busy to write everything down.

Signs of Woodss' injury went unnoticed because alkaline destroys tissue nerve endings, which would have prevented Woods from feeling or showing pain, Old said.

Dr. Wolfe confirmed that Woods' nerve endings were destroyed and said that if her burns were any deeper, he would have had to amputate her feet.

Dr. Wolfe also testified that the burn patterns on her feet suggest Woods submerged her feet in the chemical rather than pouring the hazardous substance on herself.

Woods and her husband Jeff filed their suit on March 17, 2005, in the Jefferson County District Court.

They are seeking damages for past and future impairment, disfigurement, mental anguish, lost earnings, medical expenses and loss of consortium.

Old is a partner in the Germer Gertz law firm.

Judge Gary Sanderson, 60th Judicial District, is presiding over the trial.

Case No. B169-579

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