Mule-heart: The life, death and legacy of Gary Stern

Gary B. Stern, who died in 2016, and his wife Carol Stern. Carol Stern is starting a nonprofit called Angels Advocate to support patients and caregivers struggling to navigate the health care system (Courtesy of Carol Stern)

The length of the small intestines of a normal human being can vary from 10 to 25 feet. When Gary B. Stern died in 2016, he only had 17 inches of his small intestines and half of his colon left, according to his widow, Carol Stern.

It was a death for which Carol Stern holds responsible the very doctors who’d been charged with preserving her late husband’s life. It is also what inspired her and her late husband’s brother David Stern to found Angels Advocate, a nonprofit organization Carol Stern hopes will one day provide information and support to patients and caregivers who are struggling to navigate the health care system.

Gary Stern grew up in the Pikesville area going to Chizuk Amuno Congregation, said his younger brother David Stern of Owings Mills, alongside his older siblings Barbara and Steven. By adulthood, the siblings became involved in the bail bond business, which Gary Stern had a true passion for. The work both involved posting the bond for people unable to pay for their bail and tracking those who missed their court dates.

“He would go out in the middle of the night when most people didn’t want to go out, and take care of business at any time,” David Stern said. “That just meant that me and Gary had to run around and chase them and be what’s called a bounty hunter.”

In 2011, Gary Stern went to an emergency room after feeling ill, said Carol Stern, who used to live in Baltimore and now lives in Southern Shores, N.C. Gary Stern had previously been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease that had been in remission since 2000, but his physicians concluded his symptoms stemmed from a Crohn’s flare-up. They were actually the result of an ulcer that would remain undetected even after a later exploratory surgery, Carol Stern said.

Gary Stern insisted that the issue was not related to his Crohn’s disease, but his doctors didn’t listen, said David Black, whose upcoming book, “Ripped Apart,” tells the story of what Carol and Gary Stern went through.

Gary Stern was prescribed Prednisone and Toradol, which would have been used to treat a Crohn’s flare-up. He took the medication for three to four weeks, Carol Stern said, which worsened and perforated the ulcer. This, she said, was followed by a surgery that compounded the problem.

“Gary spent four years of his life with his internal organs on the outside of his body,” Black said. “They cut so much of [his] intestine out of him, that part of it was, it’s like light at the end of the tunnel. They kept trying to repair the damage they had done, but they were doing the wrong thing because they had misdiagnosed it.”

Carol Stern said her husband had numerous surgical procedures between 2011 and 2015. It required nothing less than the heart of a mule to withstand it all, said David Stern. He added that, through it all, Carol Stern was dedicated to her husband, sleeping in the hospital every night for three-and-a-half years.

“I went to the pre-op for one of the surgeries,” Carol Stern said. “Everybody was going by was saying hi to Gary, everybody that worked there. My husband looked at me and said, ‘This is my form of “Cheers.” Everybody knows my name.’”

This culminated in a lawsuit filed in March 2014 in Baltimore Circuit Court, according to The Baltimore Sun. In 2015, a jury awarded Gary Stern $28 million, though a later appeal resulted in Gary and Carol Stern having to settle for significantly less, she said.

The experience of caring for her husband, Carol Stern said, taught her much about what patients and caretakers need to know to make the right decisions, knowledge she plans to put to use through Angels Advocate when it is established.

Angels Advocate will likely be based in the Owings Mills area, Carol Stern said. She hopes to have it up and running by the beginning of 2022.

One other goal of the organization is to make sure patients and their caregivers understand that their doctors are not infallible, and that they must take control of the medical decisions.

“Patients, loved ones need to know that doctors are not God,” Carol Stern said. “Doctors make mistakes. You need to question everything that they do. And you have a right to do that. And if you think that something’s wrong, I, as the organization, will intervene.

“I truly believe that God did not let my husband suffer for no reason, and something good has got to come out of it,” Carol Stern said. “I believe Angels Advocate could be that.”

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