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Be your own best advocate in health care…before it is too late


The prospects of needing surgery are stressful and, well scary. No one likes the idea of receiving an anesthetic, maybe a general anesthetic, and allowing someone, even the most skilled surgeon, cut into our body with a knife. It is very serious stuff and should be treated that way by everyone involved.

Sure, you want to trust your physicians and you probably do with good reason. But, it is still your body and your life we are talking about.

My firm represented the estate of a young man named Joseph who trusted his doctors. Joseph trusted his doctors to timely conduct the appropriate tests, recommend the best courses of treatment and do what was in his best interest.  When Joseph met with his surgeon, he agreed to have the type of surgery the surgeon recommended. What Joseph did not know was this type of surgery had never been done at the hospital before. Joseph also did not know what the complication and death rate was for that specific type of surgery. Sadly, Joseph was told almost nothing by his physicians, including just how life threatening his condition actually was.

All Joseph was told was he was young and the surgery would be easy and involve a short stay at the hospital. Joseph trusted his doctors and underwent an aortic valve repair. Post-surgery, Joseph vomited frequently and developed shortness of breath.

Postoperative tests were ordered which showed ominous signs indicative of cardiac ischemia. This information should have alerted the physicians to treat Joseph’s symptoms as an emergency.  Instead another test was ordered known as a “stat” transthoracic echocardiogram. A stat test means it should be done right away. The cardiologist who ordered the test in the stat fashion left the hospital after ordering the test and never returned to read it. The cardiologist directly violated the policies and procedures of the hospital which required stat tests to be read by the physician who ordered them immediately after they are completed.

Not only was the test not interpreted by the cardiologist, but it was read incorrectly by (2) people not qualified to read it: the echo technician and the surgeon.  The test showed SEVERE aortic insufficiency (off the charts) yet it was interpreted as showing only minor aortic insufficiency by the technician and the surgeon.  The insufficiency was so severe that it should have been obvious to anyone interpreting the test. A post aortic valve repair patient should NOT have severe aortic insufficiency.  This was a clear, obvious and significant medical emergency.

Later that evening, the surgeon received a call from the hospital telling her that Joseph was taking a major turn for the worse. The surgeon tried to assemble her OR team to take Joseph back for another surgery to fix the repair done the day prior.

The surgeon called the cardiac anesthesiologist, who was necessary for the surgery, a total of five times on his cell phone. The calls went unanswered by the cardiac anesthesiologist because he was out to dinner at a bar. Therefore, Joseph’s life-saving surgery was delayed while waiting for the cardiac anesthesiologist to finish his dinner and finally show up at the hospital. By the time the OR team was able to perform the surgery, Joseph was just too sick and died.

When we first reviewed the medical records told us little about what really was going on in the hospital and why such a young man died in the hospital which was supposed to protect him. Attorneys Chris Searcy, Karen Terry and Matthew Schwencke felt it was critically important to obtain the cell phone records of all defendants in the case because it became clearer they would better illustrate Joseph’s tragic story of medical delay.

We believed it was reckless and a conscious disregard for Robert’s life and safety that the hospital allowed the echo technician to interpret such a critical test. Therefore, we moved to assert punitive damages against the hospital and other codefendants. While the motion for punitive damages was pending, the case settled for an amount close to the caps.

Unfortunately, the Florida legislature in 2004 passed caps on pain and suffering damages in Florida limiting them to $1 million, total for the doctors and $1.5 million for the hospital in a wrongful death case. Therefore, the most compensation that could be obtained for this egregious medical malpractice, because of the damage caps would have been $2.5 million dollars. Our firm is still fighting and hoping the Florida Supreme Court holds these caps unconstitutional so victims like Joseph’s parents can seek and obtain a full measure of justice when someone they love is wrongfully and unnecessarily ripped from their life forever.

When discussing your future surgery with your surgeon, ask your surgeon questions up front; all the questions – the easy ones and the hard ones:

  • What is involved with performing this surgery? How is it performed?
  • Why should you have this surgery and what is the expected outcome?
  • What experience does the surgeon have with this specific procedure?
  • How many of these procedures have the surgeon performed?
  • What complications has the surgeon had in other cases? Is death a possibility?
  • What options are available if you decide not to have the surgery?
  • What type of anesthesia is used and what are the usual complications of using it?
  • What are the specific risks of the procedure?
  • What is the recovery process and period of time? Is this procedure covered by my insurance?
  • Do you have malpractice insurance? How much insurance do you carry?
  • From whom can I get a second opinion?

It is your health. Whatever the choices for medical care, they belong to you. After all, in the end, it is your life.

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