Jury finds doctor guilty in case, but that won’t bring 3-year-olds back
No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries to forget, Shannon Legge still hears the screams.
In the quiet of his home, in the middle of the night, his wife cried out his name.
Jenny Legge ran toward him, one of their twin sons limp in her arms.
“He’s not breathing!” Jenny screamed. “A.J.’s not breathing!”
That was just after 12:30 a.m. on April 19, 2006. And before dawn would break, Anthony “A.J.” Legge’s twin brother, Joshua, would stop breathing, too.
In a span of 48 hours, both children would die. They had just turned 3.
The surgery they’d had just hours before their deaths was routine; doctors perform tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies by the hundreds of thousands every year in the U.S. They are among the most common procedures done.
The Legge twins spent less than five hours in Memorial Hospital of Union County and were discharged with notes in their files saying that everything had gone just fine.
How, then, did they end up dead?
A jury decided late Friday, after five hours of deliberation in Union County Common Pleas Court, that it was the doctor’s fault.
The official cause of death is listed as cerebral edema. In practical terms, that’s fluid on the brain. Doctors testified that the boys, who had a history of snoring and trouble breathing when asleep, simply stopped breathing during the night after the surgeries.
Marysville otolaryngologist Dr. Fred Leess performed the procedures. The Legges sued him for medical malpractice and wrongful death. At the two-week trial, Leess testified that the deaths were a terrible tragedy but one that couldn’t have been avoided.
He said the twins had an underlying, undetected pre-existing condition that prevented them from properly processing the pain medicine and that those complications slowed and stopped their breathing. Leess said he had been told about the mother’s concerns about the twins’ breathing problems but didn’t believe them to be dangerous.
The family maintained that if Leess had kept the children in the hospital overnight – something within his power and a standard practice for children under 3 and for those with a history of breathing trouble – their low oxygen levels could have been detected. Maybe they could have been saved, the Legges said.
Jurors ordered Leess to pay the family $2 million in compensation. Leess can appeal the damage amount.
The testimonies that the Legges and others gave during the trial painted in excruciating detail what happened to this family. But the words didn’t rip open any old wounds for Jenny and Shannon.
They had never healed.
* * *
The boys came home from the hospital at about 1 p.m. on April 18, 2006. Grandma and Grandpa stopped by with toy trucks, teddy bears and Popsicles in tow. But the twins were sleepy, so the grandparents didn’t stay long.
Toward evening, everyone was asleep, sprawled across the living-room furniture. Older brother Jake, who was 5 then, stayed on the couch, and Jenny put the twins to bed. About 11:15 p.m., she crawled in between them. Joshua was on her left, A.J. to the right.
“They were just in diapers and little shirts,” she said. “They were both warm, so I snuggled in.”
She fell asleep.
At about 12:30 a.m., she woke up facing Joshua. She rubbed his back, patted him, checked for a fever. She tucked him back in.
She rolled over and reached for A.J. She nudged him, whispered: “Hey buddy, you’re awfully cold. Let’s get a blanket.”
She lifted him to tuck him in, and his body just fell.
“He was limp like a rag doll,” she said. “I yelled for Shannon. No, I screamed for Shannon. ‘Get help!'”
Shannon ran to the home of his neighbor, a former bus driver who has grandkids of her own. Shannon figured she’d know how to help. Plus, Shannon knew he would need someone to stay with the other boys.
When Shannon returned, Jenny was on her knees on the living-room carpet trying to save her son’s life. Through the cell phone she had laid beside her on the floor, Shannon could hear the 911 operator instructing her on chest compressions.
They soon heard the wail of a siren. Jenny recalled: “I remember thinking, the squad is here. Everything will be all right now.”
At the hospital, Jenny and Shannon waited in a hallway, watching through a window as doctors and nurses crowded around the gurney that held her baby boy.
She said the doctors tried so hard, so very hard.
It wasn’t long before the door opened and the emergency-room doctor walked toward them. He motioned to the side, asked them to step into a little room.
Jenny refused. “No, no, no. I don’t want to go in there. I know what that means. If you shut that door, I know what you are going to say.”
The doctor told them it was over. A.J. was gone. He said they’d done all they could.
What had happened? No one yet knew. But even as Shannon and Jenny melted into each other’s arms, their thoughts turned to Joshua. He’d had the same surgery.
Shannon told the emergency-squad technicians who were still standing by that they had to go and get him.
For a moment, everyone resisted. Joshua had been fine a while ago at home. But Shannon insisted.
His reason was simple: “I couldn’t lose two.”
* * *
The medics told Shannon to hop in the back of the ambulance, that they would all get Joshua and bring him in to be checked out.
Just seconds after they pulled from the parking lot, one of the men turned back to Shannon: “I thought you said your other son was OK when you left home!”
Shannon replied that he was.
“That was a 911 call from your neighbor” to say that Joshua has stopped breathing, the medic said.
They got to the house, scooped Joshua up and put him in the back of the ambulance. Shannon had to help with CPR until a firetruck met the squad along the road. Then, more personnel boarded the ambulance and Shannon was pushed aside to watch.
Everyone tried to bring Joshua back. He was rushed to Nationwide Children’s Hospital and placed on life support. But it was too late.
On April 21, 2006, he was gone, too.
* * *
These days, everything has changed.
The three boys used to start each night in separate beds but usually ended up in one. Come morning, Joshua was always the first one awake. He’d tip-toe into his parents’ bedroom and sneak up to the edge of their bed. He’d peek at them, box of cereal in hand.
“Mom, Mom,” he’d whisper. “Wake up, Mom. Wake up.”
And then he’d rattle the box. So would begin another day full of action and fun.
As Shannon recounted the mattress forts, the ball games, the superhero picnics and the wrestling matches on the living-room floor, Jenny watched him with love in her eyes. Whenever he faltered, whenever he cried, she would start to rise from her chair. She wanted to touch him, console him, love him.
How do they keep the memory of the twins alive, one of the attorneys asked? They have hours and hours of video that they cannot bear to watch.
“All we have in our heads, in our hearts, is the pain of that night,” Shannon said.
“We can’t get over the pain, so we can’t remember being happy.”
* * *
For Jenny, mornings are the worst now.
In the quiet of her home, in the middle of the night, Jenny slips from her bed and makes her way to the couch.
“I hear her cry,” Shannon said. “Night after night after night. She just cries.”
Eventually, she slips back into bed. Night gives way to dawn. The shrill beep, beep of her alarm clock pierces her sleep.
The morning whispers and the rattling cereal box are gone.
She lies there in that moment, not quite awake. The world outside seems muffled. Her thoughts are her own.
And each day they are the same.
It was just a dream. Today, I’m going to open my eyes and my kids are going to be here. Today, I’m going to wake up and see them.
Finally, she opens her eyes.
By Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch