FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to correct a quotation that was attributed to the wrong individual, as well as a statement that was attributed to the New Mexico Alliance for Life, and correct spelling of a name.
Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A New Mexico anti-abortion group has released emails from several University of New Mexico physicians to bolster its contention that the New Mexico Office of Medical Investigator concealed the cause of death in the case of a 23-year-old woman who died after she began a third-trimester abortion procedure at an Albuquerque clinic.
The OMI in May 2017 released its autopsy report that stated Keisha Atkins died of natural causes from a pulmonary embolism “due to pregnancy.”
The New Mexico Alliance for Life contends her death in February 2017 was due to complications from the abortion.
Her death came in the final stage of the abortion, which began at the Southwestern Women’s Options clinic. She was transferred to University of New Mexico Hospital after she had problems breathing, and she died hours later.
The autopsy said she had sepsis related to the abortion procedure but goes on to say she would have died of the embolism regardless of the infection.
The Alliance said this week that emails from treating physicians at UNM Hospital challenged the autopsy’s conclusion.
The Alliance released subpeonaed emails, including those from a UNM Hospital emergency room physician and a hospital radiologist, who both questioned embolism as the cause of death.
“Everything about her course was consistent with septic abortion → refractory septic cardiomyopathy → death,” wrote Dr. Trenton Wray on July 20, 2017, just days before Atkins’ family was to meet with hospital doctors to discuss the autopsy results.
“I have to admit, I was floored by the cause of death being a massive PE (pulmonary embolism),” Wray wrote to radiologist Gary Martin Hatch.
Hatch replied, “The autopsy diagnosis doesn’t make sense to me. Who did the autopsy?”
OMI said late Wednesday that the original autopsy conclusion won’t change. In a prepared statement, the OMI said it has “always maintained” that the immediate cause of death was the blood clot. The source of the blood clot wasn’t determined, the OMI stated.
It reiterated that “the underlying cause of death … was pregnancy.”
“The OMI believes that the septic abortion occurred as a consequence of the termination of the pregnancy,” the statement added. The manner of death was “natural,” which means “it is due to an intrinsic disease process.”
Michael Seibel, an attorney for the Atkins’ estate, said in a statement, “The OMI office really had to go out of their way to come up with such a biased and compromised autopsy report.”
Elisa Martinez, of New Mexico Alliance, added: “This sends a chilling effect across the entire medical community…”
In the thread of physician emails last July, OMI pathologist Lauren Dvorscak, who wrote the autopsy report, told radiologist Hatch that she couldn’t say exactly when Atkins’ pulmonary embolism occurred. It didn’t show up in a CT angiography after Atkins was admitted to UNM Hospital.
In third-trimester abortions, the process can take several days. Atkins was in the final phase of the process when she developed breathing problems, and was ultimately rushed from the clinic to the hospital. “Within a few hours, she was essentially dead,” Wray said in an email July 20, 2017.
Dvorscak agreed in a July 21 email with the radiologist’s theory, which was that the endometrial infection and resulting sepsis may have caused the embolism.
“… I think the scenario you outlined is entirely plausible,” she wrote Hatch, “that everything may have been sort of a sequence from her underlying infection. However, there is no way for me to know if she embolized from a deep vein, completely separate from her sepsis. Unfortunately, I don’t think we will know.”
Her autopsy report noted that pregnant women are at higher risk for developing blood clots compared to the general population.
In the statement Wednesday, the Alliance asked, “How many more botched abortions leading to death or serious injury by Curtis Boyd and Southwestern Women’s Options have been covered up by the Office of the Medical Investigator.”
Southwestern Women’s Options, founded by Boyd, has denied any wrongdoing and has criticized anti-abortion activists for exploiting “this sad event by putting forth lies about abortion and the patient’s care.”