Going to Plan T | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Going to Plan T

The North Broward Hospital District for years has tried to build a world-class heart surgery unit. What it never had was a heart.

The district, with its budget pushing $1 billion, was corrupt and cold, playing with tax dollars like it came from a Monopoly game. It hid its actions from the public while signing bloated contracts with cronies and making incredibly wasteful insider deals.

But that seems to be changing. The district is becoming almost self-conscious about changing its image, about opening its doors to scrutiny, about finally becoming accountable to the public that funds it.

It's actually getting downright touchy-feely — and the change can be a bit unsettling, as it was last Friday afternoon. I was sitting in a sixth-floor conference room at NBHD headquarters chatting with Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine, Broward General Medical Center CEO Joe Scott, and a couple of senior vice presidents.

The reason for the visit wasn't a pleasant matter. It concerned a story I was writing about the outrageous death of a 44-year-old patient, a mother of three, who was administered a lethal medicinal overdose by a nurse at Broward General.

Just the fact that I was meeting with top brass was a little strange. Back in the day — say, a year ago — the district brass would have avoided me like dengue fever. Public records would stay put, locked in a room somewhere, withheld from view. Former CEO Wil Trower would have had his underlings give me the runaround. Former General Counsel Bill Scherer would simply trot away from me without a word, usually into an elevator.

Key word: former. That was the old district, the one that was in place before former Gov. Jeb Bush, responding to investigative reports published in New Times, radically overhauled the place, replacing all but one of the board members and sending Trower and Scherer packing.

New CEO Levine, handpicked by Bush to replace the ethically challenged Trower, greeted me Friday with a smile and a handshake and said, "Reading your stories has helped me learn what was happening around here."

Then, a little later, this sentence left the rather boyish-looking Levine's lips: "What happened with this patient was very tragic — and it never should have happened."

At the old district, admitting a mistake was about as rare as telling the truth. It just didn't happen much — certainly not in connection with its own mistakes. But Levine was definitely right: Michelene Woodin never should have died.

I already knew the basics about Woodin's death. The 44-year-old mother of three from Coral Springs had gone to Broward General's newly built, $163 million emergency room on April 23 to get a refill for Klonopin, a drug prescribed to treat her panic disorder.

That's all, just to get a prescription refilled. While at the hospital, she had a mild seizure. The physician on duty, Paul Rohart, ordered that Woodin be given 800 milligrams of the anticonvulsant Dilantin. Parceled out in 250 milligram bottles, the nurse should have given her a little more than three bottles through an IV.

But Woodin didn't get three bottles. Instead, the nurse, identified as Dionne Cooper, gave her 32: a massive — and absolutely deadly — overdose.

The patient never had a chance. When used therapeutically, levels of Dilantin, the brand name for phenytoin, should range from 10 to 20 micrograms per liter of blood. Anything above that is toxic. Woodin had more than 160 micrograms per liter of blood of the drug in her system, according to Broward County Medical Examiner's Office records.

Her husband, Randall, first alerted doctors that something seemed wrong. She was twitching in her bed. Soon, she died. Randall Woodin says he watched helplessly as she just... stopped.

"I had no clue what was happening," he says.

Nobody in the entire hospital seemed to know why Woodin died. Her ER physician, Rohart, slowly learned of the overdose only over the course of several weeks. When he was finally told how much Dilantin the nurse had given the patient, he says he was shocked.

"It was like giving her a whole bottle of aspirin for a headache," Rohart says. "She was given enough Dilantin to kill a lot of people."

Cooper never returned to work. Less than four months after the overdose, Rohart was notified that he was being fired without explanation by Phoenix Emergency Medicine, the private company that contracts with the district to provide ER doctors. The doctor, who has not been implicated in Woodin's death, has since filed a whistleblower suit in Broward Circuit Court against Phoenix.

The district quickly offered Randall Woodin a $200,000 settlement to keep the matter out of court. He accepted. That amount is the cap that the district, which has sovereign immunity because it is publicly funded, can pay out to a victim of malpractice without special approval by the Legislature.