Catholic schooling

CANON CITY— Jeremy Stodghill isn’t the kind of Christian who believes the Gospels map an earthly alternative to life’s hard knocks.

It’s not just that he has worked as a prison guard for most of his career and has no illusions about the quality of human justice.

It’s more that, listening to him talk about his six-year legal battle against the Catholic organization that runs the hospital where his wife and unborn twins died, you get the impression Stodghill has been schooled in gospels of a different kind – ones rooted in the realities of big business and the frustrations of corporate litigation.

“I understand they got to make their bottom line. Medicine’s not free… They’re in the business of making money. I don’t begrudge them that,” Stodghill says of the doctors at St. Thomas More Hospital and their bosses at Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based non-profit that describes itself as the third-largest health-care provider in the nation.

Stodghill lives here with his daughter, Libby — who was two when her mom and twin brothers died in 2006 — and with his mother-in-law, Susan, who picks Libby up from school most days because Stodghill doesn’t finish his prison shift until 10 p.m. He declared bankruptcy a few years ago as the bills tied to the case mounted. He worked a deal with the bank to avoid foreclosure.

Stodgill tries to understand the arguments hospital lawyers have made. He prints out the documents sent to him from the case, sits in a chair at home and reads them. His book of briefs is now two-and-a-half inches thick, far fatter than the phone book in his canyonlands community. He said the defense arguments it contains – including that his twin boys, who were seven months in the womb, don’t qualify as people — defy common sense and what he knows to be true. Still, he figures that what he thinks he is owed is of little consequence in a world where the giant wheels of corporate health care spin.

As The Colorado Independent first reported Wednesday, Stodghill filed the wrongful death suit against Catholic Health because he believed his twins would have been saved by an emergency C-section that was never undertaken. Catholic Health’s attorneys mounted a defense centered on the argument that, according to Colorado law, the fetuses were not people with legal rights because they never made it out of the womb.

So far, two Colorado judges have been convinced by Catholic Health’s defense. Others – including thousands of online readers who have commented on the case and tens of thousands more who have spread Stodghill’s story throughout the web – decry the hypocrisy of that argument, which they say flies in the face of church doctrine. Health-care directives authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instruct Catholic caregivers to “witness the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until death” and always to “defend the unborn.”

In the wake of news that Catholic Health has been shielding itself for years with a legal strategy that contravenes Church teachings, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan and Pueblo Bishop Fernando Isern vowed this week to review the arguments in the case to see if Catholic Health has been acting with “fidelity and faithful witness” to Church doctrine.

Stodghill is unimpressed. He said, if he could speak to the bishops directly, he’d “probably bite [his] tongue and simply tell them ‘Just do your investigation and see what [the hospital and the lawyers] did.’”

Stodghill speaks with the same deference about the doctors and lawyers involved in his case. He struggles against the urge to criticize them as experts and authority figures. Hierarchy, established rules and expertise seem to mean a lot to Stodghill. His job with the Colorado Department of Corrections is structured largely by chains of command, training and the politics of power.

So Stodghill is baffled by the conversation he had with his wife’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, on the night she died. Staples was not in the hospital at the time.

“I got pulled out [of the emergency room] and was handed a phone to talk to [him] about removing the boys. My response was ‘I’m not a doctor. I’m not trained for this.’ You know? My training consists of slapping on a bandage, through my work, basic first aid. Not a C-section. That’s not what I’m trained for.

“What do you wanna do?” he says, recalling Staples’ life-altering question. Stodghill throws his hands up. “I’m not a– !” he stops short and leans back onto the table and shakes his head. “I’m not a doctor.”

He wishes the lawyers would just tell it straight. That’s how he said he talks to Libby about the deaths of her mom and brothers.

Kids tease her at school. “You don’t have a mom. You don’t have a mom.”

“I tell her, ‘Your mom died of a blood clot.’ Be honest about it. That’s all you can be,” he says.

Stodghill remembers the feeling while giving depositions for the case over the years. It was like there was no truth, just more-preferred and less-preferred versions of what happened.

“They ask you questions and then, when you respond, they come back with ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Are you sure that’s what you heard them say?’ ‘Are you sure that’s what you saw?’ Short of [presenting] a video, all I can do is tell you what I saw,” he says.

Now a veteran of civil litigation – with the bills to prove it — he doesn’t pretend to know how he would change the justice system.

“That’s beyond my training.” He holds up his hand like he’s taking an oath. “I plead that I am not a lawyer.”

Stodghill is a non-Catholic Christian who rarely goes to church and says he has no strong feelings one way or the other about abortion, contraception or larger questions on when life begins. He’s not too concerned with what the Church’s bishops think about such matters relative to what anyone else believes.

What he knows is that the twins in his wife Lori’s womb were people. It’s just common sense. He refers to Samuel Edward and Zachary James – who were due in March 2007– as “the boys.” It took him two months after they died to take apart the bedroom he and Lori set up for them. He imagines a life in which they’d all survived. Samuel and Zachery would be in first or second grade now. He still looks at the only pictures has of them — autopsy photos of the boys cleaned up and laid together on a white blanket.

Stodghill remembers how normal everything seemed the day they died. Lori had been feeling out of sorts and “tired, just like the [pregnancy] book and the doctor said she’d be.”

“Seven-months pregnant with twins takes a lot out of you. Being tired wasn’t anything unexpected. She was feeling OK,” he says.

Reclining at home, Lori had “balanced a plate on her stomach. [We’re] sitting there watching the kids bounce the plate back and forth— Yeah, back and forth! We’re just sitting there watching them kick. So, she was feeling much better and she said, go on, go to work.”

So he did, because she looked fine. She called him later to say Dr. Staples told her to go to the hospital, because she was still feeling unwell, it was Sunday and he wasn’t holding office hours. When he got home to pick her up, Stodghill said she looked the same, maybe dehydrated, and that there was no sense of heightened anxiety or urgency as they made the trip to the emergency room.

It was December 31st. Lori died of a heart attack an hour after they arrived at the hospital.

For the last seven years on New Years Eve, Stodghill said he brings a bottle of champagne and two glasses to the cemetery where his wife and boys are buried together in the same grave. “We have a drink together.”

Stodghill said if the Colorado Supreme Court decides not to reexamine the case in the next few weeks, it’s over. “That’s it,” he said.

He didn’t say what he thought might come of the bishops’ review of the hospital legal defense as it relates to Church teachings. For his part, six years of wrangling with Catholic Health has taught him that, at least in civil court, the dollar is almighty.

[ Photo by the Colorado Independent ]