Aurora says it didn’t do enough for family of Wisconsin woman who had brain damage after routine surgery

Steve Burrows stands in the dining room of his Los Angles home, in front of notes concerning his mother’s medical condition and the family’s legal battle.
Courtesy of HBO

More than a decade after Steve Burrows’ mother suffered life-altering brain damage following a routine surgery, the Hollywood director said he feels that “the door has opened a crack” into the hospital system where she was treated.

That crack emerged Saturday following the screening of Burrows’ 2018 HBO documentary “Bleed Out” — recounting his family’s 10-year struggles to get what is now Advocate Aurora Health to explain how it happened — as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

It came in a talk-back after the show, when an Aurora official acknowledged publicly that the health care system did not do enough to communicate with Judith Burrows’ family about what was happening to her.

Communicating with patients and their families “is part of our policy. That is something that we do routinely. (But) in this case, that apparently did not work,” Chief Nursing Officer Mary Beth Kingston said Saturday as part of a panel discussion at The Back Room @ Colectivo. “You can’t view the video and think we met the needs of the family.”

Burrows pushed back.

“It’s not that it didn’t work,” he told her. “It’s that it didn’t happen. So, everything you just said I believe one hundred percent. And I believe that you believe that. But in our case, none of that happened, like never.”

Judith Burrows suffered damage that has left her unable to walk or live on her own following two routine hip surgeries at Aurora’s West Allis hospital in 2009. She was 69 at the time.

Burrows said the system did not explain what was happening with his mother, especially when she went into a coma for two weeks following the second surgery. 

Kingston’s presence at the talk-back was one of a few interactions Burrows has had with the health system since his mother’s medical problems began.

After the movie began streaming late last year, Burrows received a handwritten letter from then-co-CEO of Advocate Aurora Health Nick Turkal that acknowledged poor communication from his company. The letter from Turkal came before the company merged into Advocate Aurora Health in 2018. Turkal left the company last summer.

Burrows didn’t hear from the company again until Thursday afternoon when he received an email from current CEO Jim Skogsbergh with the subject line “can we meet?” He learned Friday that Kingston would come to the panel discussion.

In the film, Burrows and his mother’s surgeon are critical of the care Judith Burrows received after her surgery. Burrows took the case to court in 2016 — a Milwaukee County jury concluded there was no negligence by the hospital or medical professionals who were sued.

Kingston said the health system maintains a culture of safety and has a goal to increase the reporting of safety incidents.

“The culture of safety is also about disclosing to individuals when something does happen,” she said.

Advocate Aurora Health Chief Nursing Officer Mary Beth Kingston speaks at a panel following a screening of “Bleed Out.”

Burrows said the situation could have played out differently if he would have been better informed on what happened during his mother’s surgery and care afterward.

“Why would I want to spend 10 years of my life trying to get the answer to the question who was in charge of my mom’s care? Which by the way, I still don’t know,” he said to Kingston.

Kingston said Advocate Aurora’s main focus is on preventing issues and then communicating clearly if something does occur. She said the system has put a “tremendous amount of focus” on improving processes to communicate with families when things go wrong.

“It seems like the door has opened a crack here,” Burrows said. “I’m ready. Are they? Let’s find out.”

“I think our CEO will end up meeting with Steve,” Kingston said after the panel. “And we may use that movie at least with our team in West Allis or in our organization to help continue the conversation.”

Burrows still has questions about what happened with his mother’s care and why he was not better informed.

“I wondered what was learned from this experience,” he said in an interview following the talk-back. “Both letters from the CEOs said they learned something, but they never told me what that is.”

“I’m thrilled that (Kingston) came. I’m surprised and I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The film will be shown on Tuesday at the state Capitol in an event put on by Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee. Sinicki has pushed for legislation to allow for surgeries to be recorded.

Sarah Hauer can be reached at shauer@journalsentinel.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter Be MKE at jsonline.com/bemke.