Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

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August 1, 2011

Mary Brennan-Taylor, advocate for change

After losing her mother to medical error, patient safety advocate is named a UB adjunct research instructor

LOCKPORT — Mary Brennan-Taylor knows what it’s like to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.

Brennan-Taylor is currently the vice president of programs for the YWCA of Niagara, where she is responsible for the management of the agency’s rape and sexual assault victim services as well as alternatives to domestic violence programs. In addition, Brennan-Taylor serves on the Board of Directors for Niagara Hospice.

But it could be her latest venture helping victims that is probably the most personal. Brennan-Taylor is a patient safety advocate, which is someone who promotes the health and safety of patients in hospitals everywhere.

“My desire was to help a culture change in health care,” Brennan-Taylor said.

Two years ago this month Brennan-Taylor didn’t know much about hospital safety advocacy. And her mother, Alice Brennan, was an active and independent 88-year-old woman.

“She was spontaneous and funny, just hysterical, she was a cross between Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett,” Brennan-Taylor said. “She lived on her own, she drove her own car and had a more active social schedule than I could ever have.”

Brennan went into the hospital in July 2009 for pain and swelling in her leg, which was attributed to gout. Six weeks later Brennan passed away on Aug. 29 due to sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream.

Brennan-Taylor started to look around, documenting everything that had happened to her mother while in the hospital and reached out to the state health department. The department found mistakes had been made, especially with the medication given to Brennan. A few of the medications were even listed as unsafe for senior citizens.

“My intention was never to demonize anyone, this isn’t finger-pointing,” Brennan-Taylor said. “I just want there to be transparency; I want there to be a change in the way health-care systems approach patient safety, from the CEO’s office to the board room all the way to the cleaning staff.”

Brennan-Taylor started to reach out to lawmakers, as well as the health-care community, which is not the enemy but rather a partner, she said.

“I view them as a team — that’s how I tried to approach this,” Brennan-Taylor said.

With her experience with the YWCA, which requires reaching out to schools and community organizations, Brennan-Taylor decided that would be her next step.

“I thought, why not follow that same model and go into the schools and into the colleges and talk to the people who would be out on the front lines in a few years,” Brennan-Taylor said. “Thank God for the University at Buffalo — they were very receptive.”

In February, Brennan-Taylor gave a presentation to a group of third-year nursing students, telling Alice’s story and proving background on how prevalent preventable medical error was in American hospitals, as for example, that one in three people admitted to the hospital will suffer

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through some kind of medical error. Brennan-Taylor received a call sometime after from the class instructor, who told her the class was so touched, they planned to analyze Alice Brennan’s case for the rest of the semester.

“I thought it was a one-shot deal,” Brennan-Taylor said. “It was beyond anything I expected.”

The students were divided into teams that were each assigned a single episode in the six-week hospitalization that lead to Alice’s death. They looked for evidence-based best practices to understand what went wrong and then acted out the episode the way it could have and should have turned out. The UB School of Nursing plans to publish the results of the class project as an innovative approach to nursing education to engage students in patient safety issues.

Brennan-Taylor also lectures in the Niagara University Nursing Program and has participated in area hospital “Grand Rounds,” a formal presentation that promotes the cause of geriatric patient safety. She has appeared on local television programs to discuss the issue of patient safety and is featured on a national Consumers Union training video for patient advocates.

This past week, the University at Buffalo announced Brennan-Taylor had been appointed adjunct research instructor of family medicine at UB’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The position is voluntary, and Brennan-Taylor will continue to speak with UB students about patient safety.

Brennan-Taylor is not in the medical field, nor does she have any medical experience or expertise. Still, her message has touched many in the field, especially those at UB.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time in Western New York that a patient advocate has been appointed to be an interdisciplinary instructor of various health professional students. This is a necessary step in building a safety cultural across disciplines,” said Dr. Gurdev Singh, co-director of the UB Patient Safety Research Center.

“I recommended Mrs. Brennan-Taylor for this appointment because she has proven to be a key community resource to our department in building patient and caregiver interventions to detect and prevent medical error, most especially among the most fragile patients,” said Thomas Rosenthal, professor and chairman of the UB Department of Family Medicine.

Brennan-Taylor will continue to work with UB and Consumers Union to promote patient safety. The union keeps in touch, sharing ideas on how to get information out to hospital patients, current and future, everywhere.

“I can’t do anything for my mother anymore, but I can help others,” Brennan-Taylor said. “I think if I had known then what I know now, there may have been a different outcome for my mother.”

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241.


• As many as 98,000 American hospital patients die each year because of preventable medical harm

• About one in seven Medicare beneficiaries will experience medical harm, resulting in an estimated $324 million in additional Medicare costs per month and $4.4 billion annually

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