Medical Malpractice Case Shows a Family Unravel After Wife’s Passing

By Kerrie Spencer, staff writer – August 31, 2011

Losing a loved one due to the error of a surgeon and physician’s assistant is a devastating reality no one should have to go through. This particularly difficult case involves a 61-year-old woman who suddenly died five days after heart surgery. It was unexpected, and her last words to her husband of many years were, “My IV is messing up again,” and then she could hold on no longer even though the hospital tried every maneuver to revive her.

The story of this family is one of close-knit, heartfelt connections – the kind of connections where the husband and wife were not only married, but were best friends and each other’s constant support. It has moments of humor, but most of all shows the power of love that held two people together until the wife died and the husband’s world fell apart, along with his wardrobe.
For this Vietnam veteran, whose nickname was Mr. Mismatch, he could never seem to coordinate his clothes. His wife helped him with loving care and a smile to get dressed with matching clothes; this task has since been handed to one of the couple’s two daughters.

The husband and wife’s story is unique in that they first married in the 1970s, and then split up six weeks later over where the children would go to school. As fate would have it, they met again in 1989 and got married for the second time in 1991. Both were extremely community-minded; the husband would play Santa each year because he looked the part and enjoyed making others happy. His wife would curl his beard to make him look perfect as Santa, and they would both stuff replies to children’s Santa letters with McDonald’s gift certificates.

What went so wrong was that Mr. Mismatch’s wife, once a vibrant person and community leader for the environment, died unexpectedly. The lawsuit, currently in the courts, alleges that the cardiothoracic surgeon and his physician’s assistant were negligent, and that negligence caused the wrongful death. This happens to be the second wrongful death trial for the family. The first trial resulted in a hung jury in 2006 and another cardiologist settled with the family afterwards.

The medical history of the wife showed that she suffered a mild heart attack in 2001 and a second attack in 2004. The second attack resulted in the placement of a temporary pacemaker, with the intentions of putting in a permanent one later. Five days after the temporary pacemaker went in, the woman’s blood pressure dropped precipitously and she showed other signs of seriously deteriorating health.

The plaintiff’s suit suggests she died of cardiac tamponade, which could have been prevented, if there had been an accurate diagnosis of the problem and an echocardiogram performed. Cardiac tamponade is the compression of the heart when fluids (including blood) accumulate between the heart muscle and the outer covering of the heart. One of the potential causes of cardiac tamponade is heart surgery.

The defense believes the cause of the woman’s death was an acute aortic tear, which they indicate is undetectable. The question then becomes how she sustained an acute aortic tear after just having aortic and mitral valve replacement surgery. Certainly this is an issue the jury will contemplate.

The evidence at trial suggests that the doctors did not detect the problem and did not follow up on medical tests. Although one doctor evidently did order tests, he did not check them later and the physician’s assistant never mentioned the results of those tests.

There were also two code blues called for the woman. The first was supposedly called off because she only had dizziness. It is alleged that the first code blue came when the doctor was eating supper at a restaurant and he refused to come for the call.
The second code blue found the doctor at home and evidence suggests he did not return his page for 15 minutes. When a code blue is called, time is of the essence. It does not matter where a doctor is or what he is doing when a code blue happens – a doctor must get to the hospital quickly to do his job. There may be some question as to what slowed down the doctor in responding to the woman’s second code blue as that delay may have contributed to her demise.

The trial has another week to go and more evidence to consider, but one thing is clear – if the jury thinks that there is a direct causal connection between the wife sustaining an aortic tear after aortic surgery, there is a good chance the surgeon will be found responsible for the wrongful death of this woman due to medical malpractice. The information that the other cardiologist settled in a prior lawsuit may also carry some weight, although some settlements do not necessarily admit that the person was guilty of an alleged action.

Typically, medical malpractice cases are complex and take a long time to make their way through the courts. Many of them involve the use of medical expert witnesses for both sides, which in effect amounts to dueling witnesses when the jury hears their testimonies. The first noted use of an expert witness is circa 1782 in Norfolk, England.

The role of expert witnesses in this medical malpractice case is to testify that the defendant did not properly care for the patient and did not follow the accepted standards of his specialty and profession. The errors ultimately caused the patient’s life-altering injuries and death.

The role of medical expert witnesses today often includes more than just reading the patient’s medical history or analyzing other individuals involved in the case. Expert testimony will also involve electronic evidence. This can include video and audio evidence, voice mail recordings and closed-circuit television recordings for the benefit of the judge and jury. Oftentimes, evidence like this makes a significant impact on a jury that connects better with visual and audio evidence to understand the case details on a deeper level.

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