Editor's note: This article was originally published on Oct. 16, 2019 ahead of Bleed Out's Wisconsin premiere at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America. Often caused by miscommunication, medical errors can lead to life-changing outcomes for patients and their families — and the Burrows family is proof.
After falling, Judie Burrows went in for a routine partial hip replacement at the Aurora West Allis Medical Center in 2009. During the following months of painful recovery, she fell again. Then, after eight days in the hospital and a second hip surgery where she lost a significant amount of blood, Burrows fell into a nearly two week coma that resulted in permanent brain and physical damage. On Jan. 30, Judie passed away — 10 years after medical error altered her life.
Her son, comedian and filmmaker Stephen Burrows, was thrown into becoming an advocate for his mother to find out what happened. With advice from friends and lawyers, the Burrows family decided to sue for medical malpractice.
During this time, Stephen filmed his mother and her pain levels to keep records for the legal trial to come. It then turned into material for his new documentary, Bleed Out. The film shows Stephen Burrows' struggles with the endless piles of medical bills, his mother's treatments and insurance company obstacles that all circle back to the lack of transparency and accountability in modern medicine.
"I had basically three things: take care of my mother, pursue justice the only way we could in the court system and then the backup plan, plan C was maybe make a documentary at some point," he recalls.
It was about three or four years into the litigation when Stephen Burrows realized how "unbelievably difficult" things were going to be to win their case in court.
"I started to find out that medical error was the third leading cause of death in America and all these other things ... that I didn't know anything about," he recalls. "I thought maybe we might want to open this up a little bit because this personal story seems to be a universal one."
He is now a decade into all of the work that stemmed from his mother's decline. At first, he said they had to take things day-by-day, which turned into months, then years.
"Easily one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do in my life was stick a camera in my mom's face — especially back when we didn't even know if she was going to survive or pull through coming out of that coma," says Stephen Burrows.
He admits that he was only able to take a deep dive into fighting for his mom because he didn't have a typical 9-to-5 job. Stephen Burrows has heard from thousands of people also impacted by medical error — but they can't fight it to the same extent due to lack of funds, time and resources.
"There are laws in each state that are set up that limit patient's rights," he notes. "Wisconsin is one of the worst — without any question one of the harshest."
He says 80% to 90% of medical malpractice cases are either dropped or unsuccessful. They lost their case in court six years after his mother's second surgery despite the evidence gathered.
One of the biggest reasons for the documentary was also the use of electronic Intensive Care Unit technology (eICU). Aurora is just one of many hospital systems that use cameras in the ICU to monitor patients. Stephen Burrows says this technology it's "spreading like wildfire across the country."
However, he was told his mother's eICU camera was not on during the two days after her second surgery — which is when she slipped into a coma.
"We found out about [the eICU camera] by accident. Nobody at that facility told us anything about this," he recalls. "We wanted to meet with the doctor who was in charge of my mom's care in the ICU that night, and they said that there wasn't a doctor there — there was a camera doctor."
While there are great uses for telemedicine, he says, "It does not replace the bedside doctor ... You cannot assess and manage a critical care patient through a camera that's not on."
Throughout his journey in and out of hospitals, court rooms, rehabilitation facilities, medical schools and clinics across the county, he says what was initially a simple goal turned into something much larger.
"The best thing that's happened is the film has turned into a call-to-action. That was not the intention. I just wanted to tell my mom's story," he says. "But now it's no longer our movie, it's the patients out there and their families."
To this day, Stephen Burrows says they still don't have an answer for who was in charge of his mother's care. While the answers may never come, he hopes his mother's story can help other people from going through similar trauma.
"We all make mistakes. We're all humans, including doctors," he says. "Doctors are heroes, but things happen. It's not always negligence either, it's just sometimes things happen. The question is: When the mistakes are made, what are you going to do?"
Aurora Health Care has never claimed responsibility for any of the events that lead to Judie Burrows' coma and subsequent decline in health, according to Stephen Burrows. Because of the permanent brain damage after the coma, his mom needed 24/7 care.
"It's been tough," he says. "Our lawsuit is done, our film is done, so the dust has settled and I do see light. Mostly from these medical institutions who are using the film, I see real hope and that's helping heal me a little bit."
Stephen Burrow's advice and tips for health care:
- Have an advocate/be an advocate: Set up a power of attorney before a health crisis, says Stephen Burrows. "You will get better care regardless of the institution if you have someone who is asking the basic questions. And there are no stupid questions — this is your life."
- Get a second opinion, even if it's routine: "I wish I would've known this. I could've avoided this whole thing if I had gotten a second opinion right away for my mom's first hip surgery."
- Start shopping for care and have a plan: "It's tough to want to deal with this stuff. No one wants to, but your life depends on it."