When St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, brought in the former chief of cardiac surgery at Sanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the parents of sick babies at the center thought they were getting a “superstar” to treat their little ones. Instead, Dr. Michael Black turned out to be inexperienced, and he lied about his success rate.
Since 2011, at least nine babies died in the medical center’s pediatric open heart surgery program. Though Black invented techniques for operating on tiny hearts, he never got enough experience performing them. Between 2011 and 2013, St. Mary’s only performed 48 open heart surgeries on children and babies. CNN calculated the death rate at 12.5 percent, more than three times the national average of 3.3 percent cited by the Society for Thoracic Surgeons. CNN had to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the state of Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Unlike most hospitals, St. Mary’s keeps its death rate secret.
According to the Society for Thoracic surgeons, about 40 percent of pediatric heart surgery centers perform more than 250 cases a year. About 80 percent of centers do more than 100 surgeries per years. Anything less than 100 cases a year is considered “low volume” by the society, CNN reported.
What destroys the parents of children who were injured or died under Black’s care is the fact that the surgeon lied about his own track record, telling them he had never lost a patient. Black performed open heart surgery on Angie Loudon’s 2-month-old son, Landen Summerford. When the operation did not go well, Black suggested another procedure. Loudon remembers: “”He had a very reassuring grin on his face. A comforting grin — like, ‘I got this.’” Landen died shortly after that second surgery. “Dr. Black told me he would write this up for a medical journal, because it was such an extraordinary situation,” Loudon told CNN.
Loudon had no idea that her son was the fifth child to die under Black’s care.
When CNN contacted Black on his cell phone, he told the network, “I hear you’ve been asking questions about me,” he said. “You should come down here and we can talk.” But that interview was not to be. Hospital spokeswoman Shelly Weiss Friedberg told CNN she would be in contact to set up a date for the meeting, but a few days later Friedberg emailed the network back to say that Black would not be doing an interview, and neither would hospital executives.
On June 2, the hospital’s ninth baby died following heart surgery. St. Mary’s claims that CNN did not get its death rate right, but refuses to say what it actually is, WPTV reported. “We are deeply saddened when a lack of institutional transparency may have contributed to potentially unnecessary risk and serious harm,” said Amy Basken, a spokeswoman for the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association, a national advocacy group.