PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Newport News man is suing Naval Medical Center Portsmouth for $25 million. He claims mistakes made during his wife’s surgery led to her death.
The love affair between Jim and Ellie Van Emburgh started in the mid-1980s. Jim Van Emburgh, a U.S. Army veteran, was stationed in Panama when the two first locked eyes.
“At that point in time, I was just joking with her and said, ‘You know I’m going to marry you one day,'” Jim Van Emburgh said.
That joke turned into a reality. The two were married for 34 years.
“She was just an awesome person and made friends wherever she went,” Van Emburgh added.
In October 2019, 58-year-old Ellie Van Emburgh checked into Naval Medical Center Portsmouth for hiatal hernia surgery.
“The expectation: It would be routine,” Jim Van Emburgh said.
But in the minutes right after the surgery, Ellie Van Emburgh began to experience complications.
“I got a call saying that ‘We had to move your wife from recovery to ICU,'” Van Emburgh recalled.
The issues continued for days. Jim Van Emburgh says doctors unknowingly cut his wife’s esophagus and none of the medical staff realized it. It caused internal bleeding. No one knew how bad it was until they were home five weeks later. Ellie Van Emburgh couldn’t breathe.
“The worst was she looked at me and when you have that many years together it was ‘Help me like you always do,'” Jim Van Emburgh said. “I failed. I failed her.”
Ellie Van Emburgh died a short time later.
“It’s just impossible to describe the loss and the pain,” Jim Van Emburgh added.
“This is nothing but an unmitigated tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” said family attorney Ben Beliles. “That’s what’s so tragic about this. People sometimes die from horrible medical events and this one didn’t have to happen.”
The family just filed the lawsuit against Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in federal court citing a lack of care during and after the surgery.
“Ellie Van Emburgh would still be alive today, but for the failures of Naval Medical Center Portsmouth,” Beliles added.
The family believes things would have been different had doctors caught and repaired the mistake right away.
“4:15 on 9 November, my life ended,” Jim Van Emburgh said. “Ellie passed and I’ve been like this ever since with no answers. No answers at all.”
10 On Your Side reached out to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth about the lawsuit. We were told no one would be able to comment on pending litigation.