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DENVER — When you go to the hospital, you think they are going to help you, not make matters worse. But the statistics show otherwise.

Preventable medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., right after heart disease and cancer. Now, a Highlands Ranch mom who lost her daughter eight years ago is using her story to make hospital visits safer.

Carol Hemmelgarn said, “When people think this ends, it never ends. I got a call at 4:18 on a Monday afternoon that she had leukemia and you know it rocks your world because it wasn’t what you were expecting.” But it wasn’t the leukemia that would take Carol Hemmelgarn’s 9-year-old daughter Alyssa, just 10 days later.

It was a series of medical mistakes made by staff at the hospital where Alyssa was treated. “So the people treating her thought she was anxious, she wasn’t. She had an infection that was elevated, she was turning septic. Classic case of failure to rescue, her blood pressure was dropping, she needed oxygen, her pulse was increasing, cognitively not there, everyone thought she was sleepy.”

Carol’s instincts were telling her otherwise, but she couldn’t get anyone to listen until years later. “It was a journey. It took them three years, seven months, 27 days to have an honest conversation with me.”

Still in grief, Carol told hospital administrators that she actually wanted to help them. “All I ever wanted to do was know the truth and I want to help you, so the other people walking into the front doors of your organization, we learn from the mistakes and they won’t have to go through the same thing Alyssa did.”

And now her journey has her sharing her story. She speaks to doctors, nursing groups, parents, anyone that will listen. She said, “In the field of patient safety, which is a passion of mine, there are a lot of medical errors. Your patients are telling you stories.”

Her story started in 2007. She said, “After Alyssa died, we were in a state of shock. You took your daughter to the hospital, you came home without her. We walked into the house and had to tell her brother she’s no longer alive, what happened?”

Alyssa, an avid reader, soccer player and artist passed away in 2007. But her mom is making sure her memory stays alive. “Healthcare is changing. We’re trying to break down the hierarchy so it’s a team approach now, so the loved one, they have as much voice and say, care team listens.”

She said she has seen changes for the better over the past eight years but she said much more needs to be done. “If your gut is telling you something is wrong, then you’ve got to articulate that and escalate it. Every parent and patient has a voice. We have to speak up when we think something isn’t right or we don’t understand. We can’t be afraid because we don’t have the knowledge.”

Carol said the National Patient Safety Foundation is an excellent resource for families. They have a campaign called “Ask Me 3,” outlining the three key questions every patient should ask.

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?