INVESTIGATORS: Emily's only day - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Emily's only day

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) -

Every parent of a toddler knows that sometimes, it's hard to get the straight story -- but when what you're trying to figure out is why your firstborn never lived to play in the park, those nagging questions can bring you down.

"I was angry because it could have been prevented," Matt Rindal admitted. "It should have been prevented."

Alona Rindal was just about to start fertility treatments when she and her husband discovered she was pregnant.

"Miracle -- it felt like one," Alona Rindal recalled.

An ultrasound revealed a rare but treatable problem. All babies start with their organs outside their bodies. At about 12 weeks gestation, their abdomen grows around and encloses the organs as the baby develops, but in one in 10 cases -- and in Emily's case -- some of the organs remain outside, held only it a little pouch that looks like a bubble over the tummy and is called an omphalocele.

"If there aren't any other issues that showed up, the success rate of these kids growing up and living normal lives is 90 percent," Alone Rindal said.

Emily was born beautiful with no other issues, but there was this foreshadowing of an ordeal to come, of a critical six hours when, as a team, her caregivers failed. Then, Emily did too.

"She fought and she fought and she fought," Alona Rindal said.

Emily's fight to live unfolded in the neonatal care unit, or NICU, of the Children's Hospital in St. Paul. Her parents' fight for answers unfolded in a pile of finger-pointing, blame-dodging documents -- a lawsuit filed, they say, not so much to collect money, but to get answers.

That persistent, insistent question: Why? It's rarely satisfied. As in: Why was newborn Emily taken into surgery right away push the pouch into her body?

"She was just fine, fully alert, happy," Matt Rindal said. "There was no reason to rush her into surgery."

Weeks before delivery, the Rindals saw a surgeon and talked options. One option didn't involve surgery at all.

The risk of surgery? That a vein from the liver or part of the intestines would get kinked, cutting off blood flow. But the day Emily was born, a different surgeon from the same practice -- Dr. David Wahoff -- was on duty.

"I felt like they didn't know us," Matt Rindal said. "They didn't know our baby."

They did know Emily's omphalocele wasn't small. Two experts for Emily's parents said that made the surgery more dicey, and to monitor afterward was all the more critical.

"The surgeon walked her down to the NICU then washed his hands of it and walked away," Matt Rindal told Fox 9.

Parents watch their kids closely, and the Rindals had hopes for something like that when they chose Children's Hospital for its excellent reputation.

"We hoped and expected they would treat our child like it was their child," Matt Rindal said. "Is that too much for a parent to ask for? No, I don't think so."

Instead, Emily spent her first 6 hours in the NICU dying, seemingly in plain sight -- in the unit where patients are supposed to be most closely monitored.

But it wouldn't have taken an expert to know Emily was in trouble. Her oxygen levels dropped, she got pale -- but most obvious, even though she got three big bumps of fluids three times in the first four hours, she never peed. Fluid went in, it just never came out.

An expert for the family wrote the NICU staff documented Emily's condition but "there is no indication these findings were reported to any physician, a breach in the standard of care."

The surgeon didn't see Emily until he did rounds that evening. At that point, he described Emily as "in shock."

"They didn't need tests or measurements," Alona Rindal said. "She looked clearly ill."

They rushed Emily into a second surgery, and she struggled on through the night.

"We talked to her the whole night," Matt Rindal remembered. "She put on a real good fight."

"I would just sit there and tell her, 'You can do this,'" Alona Rindal said. "'You can get through this.'"

It was too late. All of the experts, even the surgeons, agreed that if they'd gotten to her sooner, say within 4 hours, she could have been saved. Instead, she died in her dad's arms. Her mom was in her own hospital room. Then, something in their eyes died too.

Life goes on, of course. Two beautiful children have come since. Even so, they needed to know why their firstborn never got to know her sister and brother.

The Rindals sued the surgeon's practice. The surgeon turned around and blamed the NICU doctors for failing to tell him Emily was in trouble.

Dr. Wahoff's statement: "I was surprised I wasn't notified… I would have expected a call."

Two experts for the surgeon testified doing the surgery was reasonable and that it was up to the NICU to tell the surgeon Emily was in trouble. The jury agreed. When asked whether Wahoff's care and treatment of Emily was negligent, the verdict was no.

The Rindals also sued Children's Hospital, thinking they ran the NICU. It's not an unreasonable assumption. After all, the hospital brags about its NICU and NICU doctors, which its website suggests are part of the Children's Hospital staff.

Turns out, they're not always. In fact, more than 70 percent of the doctors practicing at Children's Hospital are independent contractors -- including the neonatologists on duty when Emily was dying. That is why Children's Hospital asked a judge to throw out the Rindals' suit against the hospital and the judge agreed, throwing the case out before trial.

Children's Hospital won't talk about Emily's case except to say their thoughts are with the Rindal family. They point out that it is rare for a hospital to use only staff doctors, and that is true.

"The concern from the standpoint of care is: Who is controlling it and overseeing it?" explained Peter Riley, a malpractice attorney.

Riley did not handle Emily's case and is talking in general.

Hospital medicine is most often a team approach involving doctors and nurses employed by a number of companies. In the rare instance of a mistake, it can be hard to know who is responsible.

"Should a hospital ultimately be responsible for how all the moving parts come together?" Fox 9 Investigator Trish Van Pilsum asked.

"You're asking sort of a moral question. That is hard for me to answer," Riley said. "From a legal standpoint, the answer is no."

Yet, Riley handled a case in which a hospital stepped up anyway.

"At the end of the day, they were accountable to the family and there was none of this 'well, who did the doctor work for' or anything like that," Riley said.

Children's Hospital says it will share accountability for patients with some of its independent doctors, but it didn't say which doctors and that didn't happen in Emily's case.

More than anything, the Rindals would like someone to step up and take responsibility -- maybe even say they learned something -- so that no baby is ever left stranded the way they believe Emily was.

"It was like she was on this little island, hooked up to machines that were showing something was wrong, and no one doing anything about it," Alona Rindal said.

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