The Utah Supreme Court is considering the arguments of a family that says the full story of their daughter's death is hidden by a medical and legal conspiracy.
Shelly Hipwell was a young mother in early 1989 when a resident doctor at University Hospital punctured her heart while trying to extract a bone-marrow sample from her sternum. Blood filled her chest cavity, cutting the oxygen to her brain. She was left severely brain-damaged and was in a coma for more than three years.Hipwell died on May 27, 1992. But her mother and husband believe other factors were involved in her death.
Justices - joined by 5th District Judge J. Philip Eves and 7th District Judge Bruce K. Halliday - took the dispute under advisement last Tuesday and will rule later. Justice Christine Durham recused herself due to her husband's business ties to IHC Hospitals, and Justice I. Daniel Stewart is recovering from a broken hip.
Hipwell's mother, Sherry Jensen, and her husband, Shayne Hipwell, last week asked the high state court to revive their fraud and malpractice lawsuit against McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden and physician Michael J. Healy. Healy treated Hipwell before her transfer to University Hospital.
The family argues evidence of earlier malpractice at McKay-Dee did not surface until 1990. They filed suit in 1992.
Healy and McKay-Dee Hospital defend their care and deny the fraud allegations. Their lawyers argue 3rd District Judge Glenn Iwasaki was correct to dismiss the case on procedural grounds: It was filed too late and missed deadlines for suing health-care providers.
Hipwell gave birth to her second daughter by Caesarean section at McKay-Dee on Dec. 13, 1988. Then 26, she was an office worker for Morgan Jewelers.
The next day, she underwent surgery for a ruptured liver, a result of HELLP syndrome - which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count. She later was transferred, her family was told, because she might have gangrene in a surgical wound and might need skin grafts at the university's burn center.
Hipwell's attorney, Richard D. Burbidge, now asserts McKay-Dee ignored early warning signs of HELLP syndrome, allowing her to bleed for hours.
"She suffered from the negligence of those symptoms," Burbidge said in last week's arguments. "She essentially bled to death."
Surgery revealed her liver had ruptured and there were 3,000 cubic centimeters of blood in her abdomen - two-thirds of her body's total, his legal briefs state.
Burbidge says an "incredible orchestration" then began.
The possibility of gangrene was a pretext to ship her to University Hospital and out of the Intermountain Health Care (IHC) system, he alleges. McKay-Dee had the facilities to test for and treat gangrene, which further investigation showed Hipwell did not have, he said.
But after Hipwell's heart was punctured at University Hospital, physician Healy wanted to avoid an in-depth malpractice investigation that could raise questions about Hipwell's care at McKay-Dee, Burbidge alleges.
Diane DeVries - Healy's sister and file clerk - called Hipwell's mother to offer assistance, identifying herself only as the local LDS Relief Society president. She suggested the family hire attorney Roger Sharp, which it did.
The family was unaware Sharp had agreed to share the University Hospital malpractice case with attorney Tim W. Healy - the brother of physician Healy and DeVries, Burbidge alleges.