Florida Hospital Shuts Down Surgery Program After Several Babies Die
The results of a year-long investigation
A Florida hospital at the center of a controversy involving disturbingly high death rates among infant and newborn cardiac patients treated at the facility has shut down its pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program.
A year-long CNN investigation revealed that from 2011 to 2013, St. Mary’s Medical Center had a 12.5% mortality rate for open-heart surgeries, which is more than three times the national average. At least nine babies died under the hospital’s care since the program started in 2011. A tenth child was left permanently paralyzed. 
In June 2014, the chairman of an expert state panel recommended that St. Mary’s stop operating on children under the age of 6 months, and stop doing complex procedures on all children, but to no avail. The medical center continued to operate on babies right up until the decision to shut down the program was made.
The hospital continually defended itself, saying in a statement that CNN’s mortality calculations were “wrong,” “exaggerated,” and “completely erroneous.” St. Mary’s argued that the program’s risk-adjusted mortality rate was within the average range for pediatric heart surgery programs nationwide.
“We are proud of the work that has been done and the lives that have been saved. This is the decision of the hospital and not based on a decision or recommendation by the state of Florida or any regulatory agency,” the West Palm Beach hospital said in a statement that was obtained by local media Monday.
St. Mary’s continued:
“The inaccurate media reports on our program have made it significantly more challenging to build sustainable volume in our program. At this time we feel it is best to focus on other services needed by our community.”
CNN first broke the story about the pediatric cardiac deaths at St. Mary’s Medical Center in June. Parents who lost children in the program spoke of the West Palm Beach hospital’s pediatric heart surgeon, Dr. Michael Black, claiming to have never lost a single young patient.
When complications arose or a child died, the former chief of cardiac surgery at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital would feign shock, telling the grieving parents that the event was so rare, he would probably write it up in a medical journal.
In April, a team of five independent pediatric heart doctors to evaluate St. Mary’s pediatric heart program. The physicians determined that many vital tests and services for children’s hearts were inadequate.
“The echocardiogram reports are uniformly inadequate,” wrote Dr. Ira Gessner, a pediatric cardiologist and professor at the University of Florida, referring to reports on ultrasounds of the heart.
The team also concluded St. Mary’s lacked pediatric electrophysiology (the study of abnormal heart rhythms) expertise, as well as a pediatric electrophysiology lab.
The hospital, the doctors said, also didn’t perform enough complex heart surgeries on babies to be proficient and comfortable at doing so. 
“This is my fifth CMS site review performed as a reviewer. I have never before gone on a CMS site review where the hospital under review had ZERO pediatric cardiac patients in the [intensive care unit] and ZERO pediatric cardiac patients in the hospital. On our review of April 8, 2014, at St. Mary’s Medical Center … ZERO pediatric cardiac patients were in the ICU and ZERO pediatric cardiac patients were in the hospital,” he wrote.
The majority of the children who died under Black’s care at St. Mary’s were also found to be Medicaid patients.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.