Money and medicine: Patient dies in troubled hospital

After Frances Mejia died in June 2014 at University General Hospital in Dallas, her family filed a lawsuit seeking answers. News 8's Byron Harris has what our investigates team uncovered.


News 8 Investigates

DALLAS – Frances Mejia was bleeding internally last year at University General Hospital in Dallas, and her doctor knew it.

"We took her into surgery, put a scope in, then opened her," Dr. Joseph Bianco said in a later deposition. "I found a bleeder off the right hepatic artery."

It was the second time Dr. Bianco had operated on Mejia in 24 hours. The first was to remove her gallbladder — usually a procedure so routine the patient doesn't even stay the night. But now she was in intensive care.

After she died on June 30, 2014, her family filed a lawsuit seeking answers.

"This is an in-and-out surgery," her father, Frank Vasquez, said. "How could she be in such pain?"

The hospital where she died, University General across South Hampton from Kiest Park in Oak Cliff, is now vacant. Its emergency room signs are now covered or taken down.

"Ask the bank," said a caretaker there when asked about what was going on at the hospital nowadays.

Last year, when it was still open, it had 110 beds. But after three owners, the hospital was in financial trouble. It actually operated without a license for a month during the previous year.

University General Health System of Houston bought the Dallas facility in 2013. The plan was to change its image.

University General Health was all about image. It was never associated with any university, despite its name. It billed itself as a luxury five-star hospital system, featuring chef-cooked meals and oil paintings on the walls of patients' rooms.

But one of the doctors, sued as a result of Frances Mejia's death, said she wouldn't even send her own family to UGH Dallas, even though she was on staff there.

"I didn't feel like they would be able to get the type of care, per se, they needed," said Dr. Franchell Richard Hamilton in a deposition in the Mejia lawsuit. "I felt like some of the nurses needed more education."

Nurse Tonika Collins, who attended to Mrs. Mejia, did not disclose her criminal record on her state nursing license application, records show.

A routine state inspection a week after Mrs. Mejia died found termites in one operating room; a ripped mattress on a surgical bed; spurts of body fluid on a dialysis room ceiling; and hospital floors so severely gouged they couldn't be disinfected.

"It was run down," Vasquez said. "It just didn't seem like it was up-to-par."

Records show that a UGH staff member told hospital inspectors that the facility lacked money to make improvements. "This is really all about funding," state inspection records show one employee said. "There just aren't the resources to address some of these issues."

Yet UGH administrators in Houston were receiving huge raises between 2011 and 2014, according to corporate filings.

  • CEO Hassan Chahadeh's base salary went from $333,000 to $1.35 million
  • Michael L. Griffin, chief financial officer, saw his salary increase from $333,000 to $700,000
  • Donald W. Sapaugh, president, went from $157,000 to $600,000

When Frances Vasquez went to the UGH emergency room, she knew none of these things. She was in pain. She was told she needed to have her gallbladder removed. A hospital, she assumed, was a hospital.

She continued to lose blood after two surgeries.

"She was going downhill," Vasquez said of his daughter.

And as her crisis grew, her father could find no doctor to tell him what was happening.

The schedule shows Dr. Hamilton, who was familiar with gallbladder surgeries, was on call. When Mejia's condition deteriorated, Dr. Hamilton never came to the hospital.

Through her attorney, she denied responsibility for Mrs. Mejia's case.

"A patient is bleeding to death in the ICU — the place where you should be safe and taken care of," said attorney Mike Sawicki, who is suing the hospital for Mejia's family.

He says there's a larger problem of oversight over hospital systems.

"The focus on making money through the health care system has destroyed the protections that patients should get," Sawicki said.

Three days after she entered UGH, Frances Mejia was brain dead. Her family elected to take her off a respirator, ultimately ending her life.

Dr. Bianco was reprimanded for Frances Mejia's death and another botched cased at UGH by the Texas Medical Board. He still has his license.

Dr. Hamilton is still practicing.

UGH Dallas was closed in December. UGH in Houston declined to comment on the case. The UGH system has declared bankruptcy and is working on a plan to get back in business.


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