Monday, January 02, 2023

January 2, 1978: Cutting Corners Cuts Life Short

 In December of 1977, 26-year-old leather shop owner Sherry Emry of Hammond, Indiana went to Water Tower Reproductive Center in Chicago for a pregnancy test. When the test was positive, she made an appointment to return on December 28 for an abortion.

A news clipping photo of a young woman with thick, dark hair parted in the middle and large eyeglasses in the style of the late 1970s
Sherry Emry
An unspecified doctor performed the safe and legal abortion. Clinic owner Arnold Bickham did not have his staff do pathology exams on abortion tissues; instead they threw them away, in violation of state law.

After her abortion, Sherry returned to her home. She was in pain on New Years Eve. She consulted with the clinic instruction sheet and concluded that her pain was normal. By January 1, Sherry was quite ill and unable to arise from her bed. Her worried friends urged her to seek medical care, but Sherry thought that she just had the flu, so she kept to her bed. She slept fitfully, with chills and sweating. When her friends came to check on her the morning of January 2, they found her dead in her bed and called the police.

Lake County Coroner Dr. Albert Willardo performed an autopsy He found that Sherry's fetus had been implanted in her fallopian tube, which ruptured. She bled to death. The coroner blamed Sherry's death on the fact that Water Tower threw fetal remains away without a pathology analysis. "She should have been warned about possible complications. If she was not warned, this was at the least gross disregard for a patient's safety and certainly puts it in the area of manslaughter."

Dr. Willardo asked Illinois officials to conduct an investigation. It took them eight months to get started.

Headshot of a bald, middle-aged Black man wearing a white shirt and black necktie
Arnold Bickham
The police found that Sherry had a receipt from Water Tower indicating a $50 discount. They hypothesized that staff might have noted the lack of a fetus in the aspirator, concluded that Sherry hadn't been pregnant, and given her a partial refund. However, some unnamed sources told the Chicago Tribune that Wednesday, the day of the week when Sherry's abortion was done, was discount day at the facility.

A CDC report about Sherry's death says, "At this clinic the physicians did not routinely examine the products of conception except through the wall of the transparent suction tubing as tissue was aspirated.... The tissue was neither weighed nor examined.... The aspirated material from all patients was collected together in a single bottle." "Autopsy revealed 4,000 ml of blood in the peritoneal cavity and a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.... fetal size was consistent with a 10 weeks gestation."

When Sherry's survivors filed a $5 million suit against Bickham, he refused to turn over her medical records, first saying that they were privileged, then by claiming that they were his personal property and that Sherry's family had no right to them. Bickham was held in contempt of court for his refusal to cooperate with the courts in the matter. Eventually authorities had to drop any hope of prosecution when a court ruled that they could not examine the records of 62 other patients to see if Bickham showed a pattern of recklessness in his care of patients.

The state was able to close the clinic due to lack of cooperation with inspectors.

In spite of his poor records, Bickham collected nearly $800,000 in Medicaid payments for abortions he performed. This was the largest Medicaid payout to any doctor in the country that year.

Sherry wasn't the only woman to die after abortion in a Bickham facility. 
Sylvia Moore, age 18, died after Bickham shoved her out the door of his clinic New Years Eve of 1986.

Newly added sources:

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