A medical malpractice lawsuit was filed Friday against SSM Health Care-St. Louis and a local neurosurgeon for allegedly operating on the wrong side of a woman’s skull and brain.
The 53-year-old woman, Regina Turner, was scheduled for surgery on April 4th for a “left-sided craniotomy bypass” at St. Clare Health Center in Fenton, according to a complaint filed in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County in Clayton.
Instead, she received a “right-sided craniotomy surgical procedure,” the suit alleges.
The woman is now unable to speak intelligibly, according to the suit. After the doctors realized that they had made a terrible error, a second surgery was performed six days later on the “left” side of her skull.
The lawsuit accuses SSM and Turner’s neurosurgeon (identified by the initials “A.L.”) with negligence and carelessness that led to a wrong-site surgery.
“Before the incorrect surgery, plaintiff was mobile, cognizant and able to care for herself,” the suit alleges. “After the incorrect surgery, Turner requires around-the-clock care for her basic needs…(She) will also continue to suffer from emotional distress, anxiety, disfigurement and depression.”
SSM officials declined to comment specifically about the pending litigation.
Turner worked as a supervisor for an Internet service provider and later worked as a paralegal in Oklahoma City before relocating to the St. Louis area. Five years ago, her health started to deteriorate when she suffered a series of mini-strokes, which affected her speech last December. The lawsuit states that prior to the recent surgeries, family members understood her speech.
The purpose of the craniotomy bypass surgery was to prevent further strokes.
In 2010, the Journal of Neurosurgery identified 35 documented cases of wrong-side craniotomies from 1966 to 2009 in the U.S. It also concluded that additional cases were probably settled and never brought to the attention of state medical licensing boards, courts and news organizations.
Boston-based author of “Transforming Health Care, Charles Kenney, said that, “wrong-site surgery is such an egregious system failure. It’s so devastating, not only to the patient and the patient’s family, but also to the caregiving team because they have made about the worst mistake that they can make.”
Rather than assign blame, there should be checklists in place to prevent errors such as this from occurring.
“If the organization does not have in place ‘mistake-proofing’ processes for things like brain surgery, then it’s clearly not where it needs to be,” Kenney said. “If they have all those processes in place, then what was missing? You can’t just make rules. You need sustained training, reminders, and work…If you don’t have a culture where everyone buys into that, then you have a flawed process.”
Generally, such checklists include surgeon’s indelible markings on the operative site, as well as members of the operating team verifying that site with medical records. The protocols also call for a “time-out” to be held in which the surgeon explains the details of the operation and permits all members of his team to ask questions, as well as raise any concerns, doubts or objections.
According to Turner’s lawsuit, SSM’s employees set up the operating room incorrectly and “stood by and watched A.L. operate on the wrong side of plaintiff’s skull and brain when they could have prevented the error.”
The lawsuit alleges that all the defendants “failed to participate in a timeout.”
Hospital safety experts define wrong-site surgeries, wrong-person surgeries and other serious errors as “never events,” meaning that, with proper vigilance and attentiveness by medical staff and surgeons, they should never occur.
The lawsuit, which calls the mistake a “surgical mishap,” asks for punitive damages “sufficient to punish” SSM and the neurosurgeon for what it characterizes as “their complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of Regina Turner.”
The Missouri Senate is considering a bill that would place a cap on noneconomic damages in future medical malpractice cases. Noneconomic damages are generally defined as any damages not associated with a person’s lost wages or medical care. A cap would deprive victims the opportunity to receive any jury award for pain and suffering, lost mobility, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of sight, loss of hearing and loss of consortium.
At the present time, Missouri has no comprehensive cap on medical malpractice awards because last year the Missouri Supreme Court struck down such limits as unconstitutional. However, the court has upheld a cap of $350,000 for noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases.
Texas and California successfully placed such limits on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases to hold down jury verdicts.
What do you think about the $350,000 cap for noneconomic damages?
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