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Sunday, November 19, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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''The Girl Who Died Twice: The Libby Zion Case And The Hidden Hazards Of Hospitals''

Special To The Seattle Times

"The Girl Who Died Twice: The Libby Zion Case and the Hidden Hazards of Hospitals" by Natalie Robins Delacorte, $22.95

On any given day, more than half a million patients are in American hospitals, and the vast majority live to talk of their experiences. But not all. Some patients die as a result of illness, their deaths unavoidable; some die because of human error.

Libby Zion, an 18-year-old college student, died because of her doctor's error. Or did she? Author Natalie Robins explores that question in "The Girl Who Died Twice," a balanced, in-depth account of Libby's life, death and the resulting 10-year malpractice suit.

Shortly before midnight on March 4, 1984, Libby entered New York Hospital's emergency room with "earache and fever." Eight hours later, she was dead. Yet she lived on in headlines for another decade, forever changing policy in teaching hospitals nationwide. Keeping with tradition, a first-year intern had charge of Libby's care; after her death, public outcry demanded, and got, better supervision of student doctors.

Yet this case isn't black and white, and Robins tackles Libby's secrets, too. She was a troubled young woman, mixing and matching prescription and illicit drugs. Did they contribute to her death? Libby made frequent pilgrimages to her pediatrician, gynecologist and psychiatrist, requesting numerous medications; she got the pills - but no continuity of care. The young woman combined

antidepressants, painkillers and cocaine in a tragic attempt to self-medicate depression and overcome the quandary of her late adolescence.

If you like clear-cut issues, don't read this book. A young woman died, and her doctors probably should have saved her - but she lied about her drug use, thereby causing them to underestimate her illness. The tragedy: Libby Zion was alone in more ways than one.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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