Tammy Cleveland feared the worst when she arrived to DeGraff Memorial Hospital on the night of Oct. 10, 2014.
Minutes earlier, her husband, Michael, had collapsed in a supermarket in a suburb of Buffalo. Witnesses and paramedics had performed CPR, but Michael had been rushed to the emergency room in serious condition.
Tammy was sitting in a hospital waiting room with her daughter and stepson when a young doctor named Gregory C. Perry delivered the bad news. He had worked on Michael for an hour but her husband’s heart had refused to restart, Perry allegedly told them.
Michael was dead, the doctor said.
But when Tammy and the children were allowed to see the supposedly dead man, what they saw startled them.
Michael was moving.
“I immediately noticed that Michael’s eyes turned to me,” Tammy told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “He was alive.”
When Tammy told Perry, however, she says the doctor didn’t believe her. For more than two and a half hours, she begged the physician, nurses and even a coroner to re-examine her husband — but nobody did, Tammy claims.
When Perry finally agreed to check Michael’s vital signs, he felt a heartbeat.
“My God, he’s got a pulse,” the doctor said, according to Tammy.
The story of how Michael seemingly “came back from the dead” is a strange and ultimately tragic tale of missed opportunities and alleged medical negligence. For the Cleveland family, it has been a nightmare. For countless others, it has conjured up distrust of doctors and captured dark fears of being fatally misdiagnosed by a physician.
And now it’s the subject of a lawsuit.
Tammy is suing Perry, another doctor and two hospitals in New York state court over claims that they “negligently, carelessly and recklessly treated” Michael.
“He didn’t take the time for me at all,” she said of Perry. “He just told me that my husband passed. He couldn’t just come in there and show that he was dead. He couldn’t take a second and put a stethoscope on him and prove to me that he wasn’t breathing. I don’t understand that. Why wouldn’t you do that to appease a grieving widow at that time, instead of walking in there nonchalant and give me your two cents acting like I was crazy?”
Brian Sutter, an attorney representing Perry, declined to comment on the case “due to privacy concerns.” Sutter did add, however, that “Dr. Perry is a caring physician, and as the facts of this case are fully developed, I am confident it will be established that his actions were appropriate.”
The company that runs the two hospitals declined to comment to local media. A lawyer representing the other doctor in the case said he stood by the physician’s treatment and intended to “vigorously defend the case,” according to the Buffalo News.
Tammy Cleveland’s nightmare began around 8 p.m. on Oct. 10, 2014, when she received a call from Michael’s ex-wife saying he had collapsed at a Tops supermarket in Tonawanda, N.Y.
Michael, 46, was a tall and handsome telemarketer. He and Tammy had met in 2001 at work in Endicott, N.Y. She was roughly a foot shorter and a few years older, but they had fallen in love and moved to Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, in 2005.
When Michael collapsed last year, the couple was just a few days away from moving again to a bigger house near a golf course.
“We just bought new clubs,” Tammy tearfully told The Post.
As Perry told Tammy that her husband was dead, she felt her future falling apart.
But her sorrow started to turn into confusion, then anger, when she and her daughter were allowed to see Michael. Tammy thought it was strange that Michael had supposedly just died, and yet he wasn’t hooked up to oxygen or life support.
Then she saw Michael move.
When she told the doctor and a nurse what she had seen, however, they “advised that it looked like [Michael] was breathing and that it was normal because he was expelling what was left in his young body,” according to the lawsuit. “Perry and the nurse assured them that [Michael]’s heart had stopped, that he was not alive but he may expel air and that was normal.”
When Perry and the nurse left the room, however, Michael “turned his eyes and looked at [Tammy] as she spoke to him,” according to the lawsuit.
Tammy jumped back in shock. She called Perry and the nurse back in but they “did not touch [Michael] or check his vitals but told the family members this was normal and they again left the room,” according to the lawsuit.
When Tammy kept speaking to her husband, he “responded by turning his eyes towards [her], moving his head side to side, looking at [her] and moving his legs,” the complaint continues.
Again, Tammy called in Perry and the nurse. And again, they told her that her husband was dead. For more than two hours, the process repeated itself, with Tammy increasingly convinced that her husband was alive and trying to communicate with her, while his doctors and nurses insisted he was dead, she said.
“Throughout the night, Michael was doing more and more, and asking for help,” Tammy told The Post. She tried telling Perry and the nurse a third time but was similarly rebuffed, she said.
“I knew he was alive but a part of me felt like maybe I didn’t know that I was talking about,” Tammy said. “I don’t have a medical degree but I knew he was alive and I wanted somebody to believe me.”
She reached her breaking point when the coroner arrived to take Michael away for an autopsy.
“The coroner came in and I just yelled at him: ‘Are you here to prove that my husband is dead? Because he’s not. Look at him,'” Tammy recalled. When Michael’s arm, leg and mouth moved, the coroner “looked at him and walked out” to get the doctor, she said.
“I said: My god. If the doctor doesn’t prove that Mike’s either dead or alive he’s going to be laying there with him,” Tammy told The Post.
Finally, at 11:10 p.m., Perry entered the room for a fifth time and agreed to check Michael’s vital signs. More than two hours after he declared Michael dead, Perry now felt a heartbeat.
“My God, he’s got a pulse,” the doctor said, Tammy recalls.
“No s—,” she replied.
Tammy’s account is backed up by her brother and father, who arrived at the hospital roughly two hours after she did.
“It was very obvious to us when we walked in the room,” her brother, Peter Ferrera, told The Post. “We both walked in the room expecting to console Tammy [because] Mike had passed. We walked in and looked at each other and were stunned because it was obvious to us that he was still breathing. There was condensation in the [breathing] tube. We were just shocked.”
“We asked Tammy what was going on and she indicated that she had tried several times to get someone to look at him but nobody would,” Ferrera added.
When Perry finally felt Michael’s pulse, “all hell broke loose.”
“I think everybody was kind of stunned,” Ferrera said.
Their father, Lynn Ferrera, described a similar scene.
“Everybody who walked into that room, Michael seemed to respond to them,” the elder Ferrera said. “I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies and when we walked in that room, I did not see a dead body there. It was very obvious he was alive.”
“It just seemed like a man struggling for life,” Peter Ferrera added.
That struggle would continue for almost 12 more hours.
“When … Perry and the hospital staff realized [Michael] was alive, they began working on [him] in an emergency pace as one would expect in the Emergency Department,” according to the lawsuit. ” … They told [Tammy] and her family that they could not handle this situation and would have [Michael] transferred to Buffalo General Medical Center for treatment.”
As doctors tried to stabilize Michael, Tammy waited in an ambulance. After hours of begging hospital staff for help, she had gotten angry at a nurse who suggested her husband’s revival was a “miracle.”
But she also couldn’t help thinking that Michael might survive, after all.
“I thought there was a chance, absolutely,” she told The Post.
At 1:06 a.m., hospital staff wheeled Michael’s gurney to the ambulance, where paramedics were shocked to see the same man they had brought in more than five hours earlier — the same man they had been told was dead.
Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance arrived at Buffalo General, where doctors scrambled to insert a stent in Michael’s heart. The procedure went well, and Tammy began to believe that Michael might make it.
“I started to make sounds of joy and the doctor said, ‘No, no, no. He’s not out of the woods yet,'” Tammy recalled.
The problem was no longer Michael’s heart but his lungs. CPR hours earlier in the supermarket had broken his ribs and punctured one of his lungs. Now the lung was filled with fluid. He was still at risk of dying.
“It was all downhill from there,” Tammy said.
At 10:48 a.m. on Oct. 11, 2014, Michael Cleveland died — this time for real.
On April 3 of this year, Tammy sued Perry, a doctor at Buffalo General and both hospitals, accusing them of “negligent” care resulting in her husband’s death. She broke her silence last week in interviews with the Buffalo News, which did an extensive report on the case.
“Defendants’ alleged actions and/or inactions were morally culpable, actuated by evil and reprehensible motives, malicious, reckless, gross, wanton and/or in reckless disregard for Plaintiff’s rights and her family’s rights,” the lawsuit claims, demanding an unidentified amount of punitive damages.
The defendants are contesting the case but, except for one, are not commenting.
Perry did not respond to the Buffalo News’ requests for comment. Sutter, his attorney, asked the newspaper not to contact his client.
A spokesman for Kaleida, the company that owns both Buffalo General and DeGraff Memorial hospitals, told the Buffalo News that “This is a patient care issue, which is covered by federal privacy law. So we are not at liberty to comment at this time.”
Gregory T. Miller, an attorney for William M. Morris, the Buffalo General doctor also named in the suit, told the newspaper: “It’s our policy not to comment on any pending litigation, other than we stand by Dr. Morris and all the care and treatment he provided. We intend to vigorously defend the case.”
Charlie Burkwit, an attorney representing Tammy Cleveland, said his client wasn’t out for money.
“This case is about accountability,” Burkwit said. “This family needs closure.”
And closure, Tammy said, can only come when Perry — a young doctor who had only received his license 15 months before the incident, according to the Buffalo News — admits his mistake.
“I want him to apologize,” she said. “I want him to apologize to my family, I want him to apologize to Mike. And I want to make sure it’s never going to happen again to anyone else.”
Even if that happens, Tammy said she will still be shaken by watching her husband die twice in front of her eyes.
“I still have nightmares,” she said. The thing that stays with her most is the thought of her husband, immobilized, trying to signal that he was still alive as his doctor pronounced him dead and walked away.
“Can you imagine how Mike must have felt?” Tammy said. “His family is fighting for his life and the medical industry is telling us he’s dead. Can you imagine what it must have been like for him, laying there, listening to that?”
The next hearing for the case is scheduled for Feb. 24, when Tammy will appear in court alongside the doctor she blames for her husband’s excruciating double death.
“I wonder if this guy sleeps at night,” she said, “because I sure don’t.”
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