Feb. 10, 2011— -- The ear-to-ear wound on James Absten's shaved head is still fresh, held together by a row of staples. Less than two weeks ago, Absten, a 58-year-old man from Puyallup, Wash. had a fourth round of surgery for a brain tumor.
Now the medical center that treated Absten is under scrutiny, after sending him home last Thursday from an unscheduled trip to the emergency department in a taxicab. The driver reportedly left him alone on a curb at 10:30 p.m., blocks away from the care facility where he was recovering from the surgery.
"He was in the hospital gown, only socks. It was wet rainy and cold out," a neighbor who found him told ABC News affiliate KOMO 4.
"I was, I was confused," Absten told KOMO.
Neighbors made sure Absten was safely returned to the nearby care facility, where he is undergoing rehabilitation therapy.
Although Absten arrived at the University of Washington Medical Center in a specialized ambulance, the hospital sent him on his way with a cab voucher.
Absten's son, James Absten Jr., said it's unclear whether Absten himself or the hospital gave the cab driver the wrong address for the Linden Grove Health Care Center.
"We apologize to the patient and his family," Tina Mankowski, a spokesperson for the hospital, told KOMO. "This is not the way we discharge our patients."
Mankowski said an investigation into the incident was currently underway, and they agreed to update the Absten family on their findings by the end of this week and develop an action plan to prevent future miscommunications by the end of the month.
The Absten family has also filed a complaint with the state Health Department.
"I just don't want this to have to happen to anybody else," Absten Jr. told KOMO.
Where Does Hospital's Responsibility End?
Dr. Jamie Ullman, associate professor of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and director of the department of neurosurgery at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York, said, "A key fact that the patient was in a facility gown and socks should have been a trigger to have an ambulette pick the patient up from the office and safely return that patient to the [skilled nursing facility] rather than simply calling a cab."
And special care should have been taken if Absten was showing signs of confusion upon his release, said John Griffith, a professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
"The hospital is responsible for seeing that the patient has a safe path to the next destination, whatever it is," said Griffith, adding that the medical center should have re-admitted Absten if necessary.
Most hospitals require patients to be accompanied to their destination by a responsible party, such as a family member or a staff member from a care facility, said Dr. Atif Haque, a neurosurgeon at the Fort Worth Brain and Spine Institute in Texas.
"It's no different, in my mind, from a child being released," Haque said. "They've had a brain injury. You don't know they're able to take care of themselves."
But how Absten came to be curbside at 10:30 p.m. – well outside of normal check-up hours – is unclear.
"This is a distinctly unusual scenario, and the University of Washington is a first-class shop," said Dr. Martin Weiss, professor and chair of neurological surgery at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "I suspect that there will be additional details that may alter the picture, or that this occurrence was an unusual 'slip-up.'"
Absten is coping well and the family is eagerly awaiting the findings from the investigation, Absten Jr. said.
"He was scared, but he's doing better now and staying positive," he said. "We're very thankful for everybody's help and support through this process."