Thursday, July 09, 2009

Widower is protesting the fact that Texas' doctors don't report patients suffering from seizures

Donald Pugh was in the throes of a seizure when he drove his car into Sally Hoffecker’s stopped sedan at 80 mph last year.

The deadly crash happened just a few hours after law officers, who had no way of knowing about Pugh’s history of seizures, let him drive away from the scene of another crash.

While some states require doctors to report seizure patients to agencies that issue drivers licenses, Texas isn’t one of them. Hoffecker’s husband thinks that should change.

“At this point all I can do is try to keep people like (Pugh) off the streets. It won’t bring my wife back, but maybe it will help others from being killed or maimed and their families from suffering,” said widower Phil Trumbly.

A Harris County jury recently sentenced Pugh, who has a lengthy criminal history, to life in prison for neglecting his medical condition and killing Hoffecker. Testimony at his trial revealed he’d been involved in three other crashes in a six-month period that authorities blamed on his seizures, including one earlier that day. In the earlier wreck, Pugh told authorities he swerved to miss a truck that cut him off, sending Pugh into a hedge and a brick wall, and blowing out two tires.

Texas has a voluntary system for doctors to alert the Department of Public Safety about seizure-prone patients, so police didn’t know about Pugh’s condition.

“Texas law does not require physicians to report, however, they are encouraged to let us know about conditions that could affect a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle,” said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange. Requiring doctors to report seizure-prone patients would require action from state lawmakers.

Some opponents

That system doesn’t seem to be working, Trumbly said.

“If the doctors didn’t voluntarily flag this guy, who would they flag?” Trumbly said. “Unfortunately, we just can’t rely on a person’s word when they apply for a driver’s license or renewal.”

Advocates for epileptics and seizure-prone people are opposed to the change, arguing that it will cause some patients to lie to their doctors about their conditions.

“We’re opposed to mandatory reporting, because it actually encourages people to not tell their doctors that they’re having seizures,” said Sandy Finucane, a spokeswoman for the National Epilepsy Foundation.

Finucane wasn’t aware of Pugh’s case, but spoke generally about seizure-prone people who drive despite doctor’s warnings.

“The theory is that if you make the rules reasonable, people are more likely to comply. If you have a person who is just not being straightforward with themselves or other people and is breaking the law, then they have to bear all the responsibility for that.”

Seizure disputed

The law in six states — California, Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Pennsylvania — includes mandatory reporting by doctors and administrative hearings to safeguard against licensing those with an uncontrolled seizure disorder.

Finucane said she’s unaware of any evidence that such laws have resulted in fewer crashes.

Still, Trumbly can’t help but think his wife would still be alive if the officer who worked Pugh’s first crash on Jan. 7, 2008, would have known about his medical condition.

“I truly believe that if there had a been a flag on his license, at the accident that morning, the officer would’ve thought ‘this guy probably had a seizure’ and done something,” Trumbly said.

Pugh’s wife, Linda, argued that another medical condition — a blood problem that causes fainting — which doctors were late to diagnose, caused Pugh to faint, not have a seizure, causing the Katy Freeway frontage road wreck that killed Hoffecker.

“That lady didn’t deserve to die — my husband and I are really stressed that the woman died,” Linda Pugh said. “There was a letter by a doctor (that arrived after the trial) that said it was an involuntary reflex, that my husband fainted.”

She also said it was not a medical condition that forced her husband into a curb earlier that day. Pugh was avoiding a truck in traffic, she said.

Trumbly — and a jury that heard his explanation — disagreed and said he believes Pugh had a seizure.

“Instead of police knowing what was going on, (Pugh) put two new tires on his car, proceeded to go on down the road and kill my wife,” he said.

‘Ignoring doctors’ advice’

A month before, Pugh lost control of his car and crashed into the front of an H-E-B grocery store and witnesses said he appeared to be in the midst of a seizure as his wheels continued spinning after hitting the store, Assistant District Attorney Samantha Peden said. She also said Pugh had another seizure about 6 months before, in July 2007.

Prosecutor Brent Mayr said jurors considered Pugh’s medical condition and the fact that his doctors told him not to drive when they decided his fate.

“That jury ultimately gave him life in prison because they saw him as a person who kept ignoring doctors’ advice not to drive, ignoring his own body’s advice not to drive.”


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