Warning saves tot from drug D.C. hospital realized family had left for Pa. with wrong painkiller

October 24, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Wayne Russell left a Washington hospital yesterday with medicine to treat his infant son. But he had mistakenly been given a potentially deadly dose of morphine -- and he didn't know it until he arrived at his in-laws' house in Pennsylvania, 240 miles away.

Warned by doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who knew where the Russells were headed, police in Maryland and Pennsylvania tried to track down the family's blue Isuzu.

Authorities broadcast a frantic message saying the child "will surely die" if given a large dose of the drug.

Russell and his wife -- who gave 21-month-old Austin a small amount of what they thought was codeine -- made it to Pottsville, Pa., unaware that anything was wrong. They were met by firefighters who rushed the infant to an emergency room.

Austin was in satisfactory condition at Good Samaritan Hospital in Pottsville and was admitted for observation for the night, said spokeswoman Joanne Parulis.

She praised Walter Reed for quickly notifying authorities, enabling them to start the search as the New York family drove to Pottsville. "Because of their quick thinking, the child is doing fine," she said.

The child's mother, who declined to give her name, said she is not angry with the Washington medical center. "It was a normal human error, and we accept it," she said by telephone from the emergency room at Good Samaritan.

Hospital officials in Pottsville and Walter Reed would not comment specifically on Austin's condition or on whether he could have died from the morphine. His parents were given 20 milligrams of morphine instead of 10 milligrams of codeine.

Child given two doses

The mother said her son was given two small doses as the family drove to Pennsylvania and that she did not notice anything unusual.

Dr. Nelson Tang of the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency department said the effects of morphine depend on the weight of the child and the dosage, neither of which could be determined yesterday.

Morphine is in the same class of pain medication as codeine, and Tang said both may be prescribed for infants. Typical side effects of an overdose, he said, include sedation and trouble LTC breathing.

Police alerted by radio

A broadcast over police radios urged officers in several jurisdictions to watch carefully for the family's car.

"Mr. Russell was prescribed the wrong medication for his infant son," the broadcast said. "If given to his son, he will surely die. Child to nearest hospital ASAP."

Maryland State Police spokesman Pete Piringer said troopers who patrol highways in suburban Washington, Baltimore and Western Maryland were on the lookout but that none spotted the car.

Site of error unknown

Ben Smith, a spokesman for Walter Reed, said the incident is being investigated. He said Austin had surgery Thursday -- he would not say what for -- and was sent home with the medication yesterday morning.

He said the mistake was realized that morning during a routine inventory of medications. It could not be learned yesterday whether the mistake occurred in the hospital pharmacy or in another office.

"Medication errors occur in some percentages no matter what hospital is involved," Smith said.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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