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Melissa Plumley shares a laugh with her son, Isaac Salas on Friday, May 6, 2011, at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. Salas was paralyzed after suffering neck injuries in a Cheyenne South wrestling practice. WTE/staff

CHEYENNE – The care – or lack of care – 16-year-old Isaac Salas received at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center almost five years ago killed him, an attorney representing his mother told a Laramie County District Court jury on Tuesday.

Donald Sullivan said in the beginning of his hour-long opening statement that the reason for the trial is because the local hospital and a doctor who cared for Salas “made important, basic mistakes.”

“By not checking his oxygen and by not fixing what was still a fixable problem, they sent him off, (and) his death was a certainty,” Sullivan said.

“If they had done the basic steps of good doctoring and good hospital care, Isaac would still be alive today,” he later emphasized. “We are here because they took shortcuts, and it cost him his life.”

In his last statement to the jury, Sullivan said he hoped the panel would weigh all the evidence and remember one simple truth: “Cutting corners kills.”

Salas was a student at Cheyenne’s South High who became paralyzed from the neck down in November 2010 after breaking his C1 and C2 vertebrae during wrestling practice.

Less than a year later, on the night of Friday, Sept. 2, 2011, he was admitted to the emergency department at CRMC because of problems with his catheter.

He was kept overnight, operated on the next morning, treated, discharged and died the next night.

Salas’ mother, Melissa Plumley, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in December 2013 against the hospital and the doctor, a urologist, who cared for her son.

The lawsuit says hospital staff gave Salas pain medication that made it even more difficult for him to breathe, which caused fluid to build up in his lungs.

“He drowned,” Sullivan said in his opening statement.

But attorneys representing the hospital and doctor emphatically disagreed with Sullivan’s representations.

“There are two sides of this case,” Traci Van Pelt told the panel in her opening statement on behalf of the hospital and its trustees, adding that the evidence will show Salas did not die because of anything his nurses or the doctor did.

Van Pelt said during her 45-minute opening statement that Salas was not a stranger to hospital staff, and it will be indisputable by the end of the trial that he received good care.

“They knew his story; he wasn’t kicked to the curb,” she said, later noting that “everyone was aware of his respiratory status.”

Van Pelt said hospital staff “were not negligent; they were reasonable and appropriate every step of the way.”

Laramie County District Judge Steven Sharpe called a lunch break after Van Pelt’s opening statement, and Plumley sobbed into her attorney’s shoulder while the jury slowly exited the courtroom.

Plumley also wailed earlier as Sullivan described to the jury how she found her son dead in his wheelchair in the back of their specialized van.

She had pulled into the driveway after running errands, called her father to let him know she made it home OK, opened the sliding door to the back of the van and tried to wake her son from what appeared to be a nap.

“Jerry (Plumley) hears screaming,” Sullivan said as his client burst into tears.

The family called 911, and paramedics took Salas back to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

It was determined that Salas had been dead for some time in the back of the van before his mother reached him.

An attorney representing the doctor who cared for Salas, B. Douglas Harris, told the jury Salas did not die from pulmonary edema, or too much fluid in his lungs, as Sullivan explained.

Instead, “unfortunately he died of silent cardiac arrest,” Corinne Rutledge said.

Both defense attorneys told the jury Salas’ hours-long errand trip in the van with family members contributed to his death and talked in detail about the need to move quadriplegic patients around in response to low blood pressure spells.

Rutledge said Salas was seated upright and hadn’t been repositioned in the back of the van for at least two hours before he was found dead.

“He was not moved, and his heart stopped. It’s that simple.”

Pulmonary edema, the cause of death Sullivan talked about, causes a “death rattle,” Rutledge said, explaining the “bubbly, wheezing sounds” a person would make while suffering from too much fluid in the lungs.

“There are lots of outward signs of this,” she said. “Every person in that van would have heard the death rattle.”

Rutledge told the jury Salas’ vital signs were consistent with his normal vitals when he left the hospital, even after he and his family stopped by the elevator while he had a dizzy spell.

She said hospital staff offered to let the family stay, but that it was reasonable and made sense for Plumley to want her son to recover at home.

He didn’t go home, though. He sat in the van for nearly six hours, she said.

Sullivan told the jury that Salas wanted to run errands with his family, rather than go home.

He also said Plumley recalls hospital staff telling her Salas’ room was no longer available.

Van Pelt, who represents the hospital, told the jury she will introduce a hospital census as evidence to show that the room Salas was in was vacant for a day and a half after he left it.

The trial is expected to last approximately two weeks.

Sullivan did not indicate in his opening statement the dollar amount of compensation he will be asking for on behalf of Salas’ family.

Sarah Zoellick is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at szoellick@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3122. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahzoellick.

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