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Accident took her life, his heart

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Leila Navidi

Since his companion’s death more than a year ago, Jack Rode has become the homemaker. Although paralyzed since childhood, Donna Wendt did the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping.

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 | 2:16 p.m.

Her Life, His Heart

Donna Wendt had her windpipe accidentally torn open at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center, leaving behind her grieving companion of 28 years, Jack Rode. This is his story, in his own words.

Jack Rode

Jack Rode and his son Steven inside their home in Las Vegas April 21, 2010. Jack Rode sits on his couch with his dog Tipper in Las Vegas Wednesday, May 26, 2010. The mother of Rode's children and his 28 year companion Donna Wendt died March 13, 2009 after an accident at Sunrise Hospital Medical Center. Her windpipe was torn open when they inserted a breathing tube, causing oxygen to be pumped into her body instead of her lungs. The torn windpipe was not immediately detected, allowing air to be pumped into her chest cavity for about 24 hours. Launch slideshow »

As a couple, Jack Rode and Donna Wendt made quite the visual impression.

He’s built like a bear — big belly and big personality.

She had been paralyzed from the chest down since age 7 and was so small she fit in a child’s size wheelchair.

Rode and Wendt were deeply in love for 28 years but never married. Tying the knot would have taken away her thousands of dollars a month in benefits from Medicare, the government’s insurance for disabled adults. The couple had two children, now adults, and a playful back-and-forth banter that started when he flirted with her at a bingo game, stealing her popcorn.

“I fell in love with her the first time I saw her,” he said.

Wendt died March 13, 2009, after an accident at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center. Her windpipe was torn open when a breathing tube was inserted, causing oxygen to be pumped into her body instead of her lungs.

According to the Clark County coroner’s report, Wendt’s death was accidental, caused by “respiratory insufficiency” — her lungs didn’t get enough oxygen or expel enough carbon dioxide to meet the body’s needs. The death was attributed by coroner officials to the tracheal injury and subsequent organ infection caused by the insertion of the breathing tube, the report said.

Now Rode aches with loneliness and burns with anger toward Dr. Eric Dennis, the physician who inserted the breathing tube. He was aloof about the accident, Rode says, when he should have apologized. Now he’s suing the doctor. (See addendum at the bottom of this story.)

“All he had to do was say, ‘Look, I screwed up,’ and we wouldn’t have to go through this fight,” Rode said.

Wendt was 56 when she died and had been totally independent. She took care of the house, had a hot meal every evening for Rode, who is a union worker, and loved riding her electric wheelchair to a nearby Arizona Charlie’s to play bingo.

She entered Sunrise on March 7, 2009, complaining of abdominal pain and, in intensive care, went into respiratory failure, requiring the placement of a tube into her lungs to assist breathing.

According to a physician’s assessment of the case, prepared for the plaintiff, Dennis intubated Wendt, causing a severe laceration to the trachea, which resulted in a chest infection that caused her death.

“The manner in which she was intubated, causing such a severe tear, does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence,” the expert wrote. “But for the negligent intubation of Donna Wendt, she would not have died.”

Neither Dennis nor his attorney returned requests for comment for this story.

It’s unknown whether Sunrise officials reported the incident to the state’s Sentinel Events Registry, which records incidents of patients being harmed while hospitalized because the information is confidential under Nevada law.

Sunrise officials would not comment specifically on the case, saying only that disciplinary action is taken when warranted in accordance with its confidential peer review process. The hospital uses such experiences to try to improve, officials said.

Rode said the torn trachea was not immediately detected, allowing air to be pumped into Wendt’s chest cavity for about 24 hours. Her body became so bloated that an air blister grew on her forehead, Rode said.

“She looked like me when I saw her — like a balloon, full of air,” he said, pointing to his rotund belly.

During surgery to repair the tear, doctors tried to place a stent to block the rupture — but it slid through the hole and into her body, where it could not be recovered, according to the coroner’s report.

The hospital wanted to attribute the death to “natural causes,” Rode said, but the coroner’s office concluded it was accidental. Rode believes the type of negligence he’s alleging should be considered manslaughter.

“I want to put him in jail,” he said of the doctor.

Rode and Wendt enjoyed buying and fixing up old homes. They had finished remodeling their kitchen to be wheelchair accessible just before her death. He shows off the amenities. The countertops are low. The dishwasher is raised so she could scoot her wheelchair underneath the door to load dishes. The drawers all pull out for easy access.

Once it was clear she would not recover, Rode was the one who told Wendt she wasn’t going to survive. He thanked her for their time together, for their kids, and promised that their grandchildren would never want for anything and that he would always keep them safe.

He doesn’t even know if she heard him when he said it.

She died about 10 minutes later.

In the medical negligence lawsuit brought against Dr. Eric Dennis, a Clark County District Court civil jury on July 18, 2012 found in favor of the doctor.

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