Bad Blood Transfusion?

Blood donor, donation, red cross

It should have been routine surgery for 34-year-old Rodney English. Born with a spine defect called Spinal Bifida, he was used to being in the hospital. This time, doctors at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta were operating on an infection in his back and gave him a blood transfusion. Afterward, he seemed fine -- at first.

Then, as CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, his fiancee's father, Wayne Parker, says he went downhill fast.

"He couldn't stay awake," says Parker. "He actually apologized for that, and he went to sleep and never woke up"

Now, CBS News has learned the FDA is investigating a possible fatal error -- the Red Cross may have mislabeled a unit of blood with the wrong type, and it somehow slipped past a multi-layer system of safety checks at the blood bank and the hospital.

Yet, until CBS News recently contacted English's family, they knew nothing of the investigation.

"No one ever said the wrong blood was given or any kind of mistake," says Parker.

In fact, English's death certificate simply states that he died of "anemia" making no mention of any blood error.

The FDA has warned of the risks of such Red Cross blunders for years, due to "persistent and serious violations of blood safety rules," like skipping safety steps and even falsifying records. The FDA fined the Red Cross hundreds of thousands of dollars in February for continuing problems.

The Red Cross Atlanta facility, which provided the blood for English, was slapped with 25 violations during FDA inspections in 1999.

The Red Cross has defended itself in the past by saying that its mistakes haven't made many people ill. However, blood injuries are hard to track for several reasons. First, doctors aren't always required to report them. Secondly, if it's disease that's being transmitted through a blood transfusion, it may not show up for years. When disease does show up years after a transfusion, it can be attributed to other causes. Thirdly, cases may be covered up to protect the responsible parties.

English's family fears they might have never been told. Nearly two months after his death nobody saw the need to clue them in.

For its part, Piedmont Hospital says it has a policy of full disclosure, but would never tell a family anything until there was "full information to share."

English's parents had both passed away before he died. He was being cared for by his grandmother, Sarah Boggs.

"He was part of my life since his birth really," says Boggs. His room is so empty and it's just, he just meant so much to all of us," says Boggs.

Without English, the life of his fiancée -- who also has Spinal Bifida -- is also emptier. After watching them struggling their whole lives to find happiness, their families are having a hard time accepting his untimely and apparently preventable death.