Monday, March 15, 2021

March 15: Fatal Cluelessness

It was March 15, 1988. Eighteen-year-old Erna Mae Fisher was nervous as 41-year-old Dennis W. Miller prepared to perform a safe and legal abortion on her on in his Kansas City, Kansas office. Miller brought Erna's mother, Ocie, into the room to hold her daughter's hand. During the abortion, Erna suddenly sat up, went into convulsions, and began to vomit.

Miller continued with the abortion while Erna choked to death on her own vomit. He delayed another 10 minutes before summoning emergency help. When an ambulance crew arrived, they found Erna's airway still full of vomit. Miller was making no attempt at resuscitation, but was holding Erna in his arms. He justified failing to check her airway or provide her with oxygen by saying, "Since I didn't realize what was going on, I didn't think it would have made any difference."

Miller later admitted that he had given Erna pain medications that he knew could cause vomiting, and that he hadn't asked her when she had last eaten.

Like other young Black women, Erna had faced twice the risk of death as a white woman from the moment she climbed on the abortion table. She left an infant daughter motherless.

Miller settled out-of-court with Erna's family for $475,000.

Miller had already settled six malpractice cases in the Kansas City area for a total of nearly $2 million. Another suit, settled for $2.2 million, involved botched obstetric care that caused a little boy to be born prematurely and suffer intellectual and physical disabilities as a result. 

He had failed the Missouri state medical exam three times before finally giving up. It took nine tries for him to pass the exam to be licensed in Kansas.

Even after Erna's death, Adele Hughey, director of Comprehensive Health for Women, said that Miller had been performing abortions there since the early 1980s. "We have a lot of confidence in him. He knows how to provide excellent abortion services and is very good." 

Miller was able to keep his medical license and continued to practice, botching a delivery in 2006 which resulted in the death of the baby.  Once again he did not lose his license, but was only censured and fined. He was later censured for botching a C-section in 2009, nearly killing the mother; botching the care of a diabetic obstetric patient so badly in 2011 that she nearly died and her baby was injured during delivery; and botching a tumor removal so badly in 2012 that the woman died. This time they finally permanently suspended his license.

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