Local News

Saturday, Feb 25 2012 03:00 PM

Family adjusts to new reality as lawsuit continues

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    In this February photo, Fatema Zagloul gives her husband, Dr. Mohamad Harb, a kiss in their Bakersfield home.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Fatema Zagloul misses the little things the most.

As her husband, Mohamad Harb, sits quietly in his wheelchair at the couple's southwest Bakersfield home, she recalls happier times when Mohamad would make coffee early each morning while she prepared breakfast.

"We sat together and talked about the small things -- for us, for the kids," she remembers.

Over his 30-year career, Harb had built a reputation as a highly regarded neonatal specialist who helped save the lives of untold numbers of critically ill babies. But after an incident in 2007 during which Zagloul believes first-responders made critical errors involving her husband's health, Harb can no longer perform even the simplest of tasks.

Like brewing coffee for his wife.

DUI OR STROKE

The incident that would transform the lives of Harb and his family -- and lead to their ongoing legal battle -- occurred in November 2007 as Harb, still wearing surgical scrubs, was driving home from a 12-hour shift at Kern Medical Center.

As he headed west on 24th Street, Harb's car came to rest at the right side of the roadway, near Oak Street.

Bakersfield police arrived at the scene minutes later, where they encountered a disoriented man who had urinated on the sidewalk and vomited on his shirt.

He was given two alcohol breath tests, both of which registered zero.

Medical tests later showed Harb had suffered a life-threatening stroke, yet the first Hall Ambulance crew called to the scene departed without him, according to the company's own reports, leaving Harb sitting on the curb, his eyes glazed, one shoe off and lying in the gutter.

Apparently believing the disoriented man was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, police had reportedly handcuffed him behind his back and sat him down on a curb for several minutes -- precious minutes that experts say are crucial in responding to stroke symptoms.

Records indicate that the first ambulance crew to arrive was sent away by former Bakersfield Police Officer Claudia Payne, who was the first officer on scene.

Meanwhile, Registered Nurse Mehgan Coffey was passing the scene in her car when she recognized Harb. She pulled over, identified herself as an RN and told police she had spent the entire day working with Harb at KMC.

"I saw a man sitting on the curb with his hands handcuffed behind his back, " Coffey wrote in a witness statement.

"He had a very confused, glazed look on his face," she said. "Then it hit me. That was Dr. Harb."

Coffey said she was horrified to learn that the first ambulance had been sent away. She immediately insisted a second ambulance be called to the scene.

Harb's wife said she believes God sent Coffey down that road all those years ago to save her husband's life.

"She was our angel," she said of the young nurse.

'TIME LOST IS BRAIN LOST'

For patients experiencing symptoms of stroke -- including slurred speech, confusion and loss of balance -- the American Stroke Association says to call 911 immediately because "time lost is brain lost."

By the time a second ambulance was requested and got Harb to a hospital, more than an hour had passed.

Local attorney Steven Gibbs represented the Harb family as a sole practitioner before joining forces last year with Bakersfield-based Young & Nichols. He and co-counsel Steve Nichols argue there was a serious breakdown of communication and authority at the scene that day.

Even if police officers take control at an accident or crime scene, paramedics must insist on providing care to critically ill or injured patients and taking them to the emergency room, even when police say otherwise, the attorneys said.

"Police have a first priority to stop criminal acts and safeguard their safety and the safety of the public," Gibbs said. "If someone is injured, their second priority is to get help for that person. The third priority is investigation."

"The problem in this case is they got the order wrong," he said. "If someone is in medical distress, you don't put them in cuffs and have them sit on a curb for 30 or 45 minutes."

A FUTURE LOST

Harb, now 61, suffered a permanent disability as a result of the stroke. Not only can he no longer practice medicine, he was unable to join in the conversation about his own situation at his home last week.

While he makes blurred utterances his wife understands, Harb now has little choice but to sit quietly as his helpmate speaks for him, for his family and all they have lost.

For years, Harb insisted that his wife continue his subscriptions to professional journals and publications containing the latest complex medical studies.

Some part of him knew, she said, that he was supposed to be spending his days at KMC's neonatal intensive care unit.

"He kept telling me, 'I miss the babies,'" his wife said.

WILL THE LAWSUIT END?

A multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in 2008 by Harb's family against the city of Bakersfield, former Bakersfield Police Officer Claudia Payne and Hall Ambulance will soon go to mediation in an attempt to settle the dispute before it goes to trial in May.

Earlier this month, Kern County Superior Court Judge Sidney Chapin ended the city of Bakersfield's last chance to knock the Harb case out of court without a trial by denying the city's summary judgment motion as well as Hall's request to join the motion.

Following the judge's ruling, the city agreed to participate in non-judicial mediation with attorneys for Harb's family.

"This is a big step for the city," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he believes attorneys for the city saw his small law office as vulnerable, and were in no hurry to settle.

But following Chapin's ruling, "they seriously needed to look at the downside" should they lose at trial, Gibbs said.

Fresno-based Michael Lehman, an attorney with Marderosian Runyon Cercone, the firm representing the city, did not return calls for comment last week, nor did Claudia Payne.

Hall's attorney, James Braze of Borton Petrini, likewise did not respond to a request for comment, but Hall spokesman Scott Allen said patient privacy laws prevent the company from commenting on any former patient without written permission.

In previous interviews, Michael Marderosian, a second Fresno-based attorney representing the city of Bakersfield, said the city is not responsible for what happened to Dr. Harb.

"The conduct of the officers is not the cause of his injuries or his disability," he said in 2010.

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

As she sat near her husband at home, Mrs. Zagloul said she hopes the lawsuit will compel police departments and ambulance companies to reexamine their policies and procedures in dealing with possible stroke victims, especially in cases in which police may attempt to overrule or delay medical care.

"It may happen to someone else," she said of their ordeal.

The Harbs' three sons and one daughter have struggled with the family's new reality as well. Harb -- his children call him Baba -- taught his eldest three children to swim, but the youngest was just 4 when his father came home from the hospital forever changed.

Now age 8, the boy hasn't enjoyed the same involvement and parenting his dad was able to provide the older siblings.

His father cannot teach him to swim.

Harb was the family's sole breadwinner. But now his wife is the one who must worry about securing the future for their children.

A native of Jordan, she has had to adjust to her difficult new relationship with her husband, which in many ways now more closely resembles a mother's role than a wife's.

But most of all, she misses the little things they shared.

"I miss that time we had together every day," Mrs. Zagloul says. "Who will make the coffee for me now?"

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