Medical Nightmares

UPDATED 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

ADAM SUSSER

Doctors left him brain-damaged, his parents say, by delaying a cesarean

The highlight of Gary Susser's day is when he rocks his son Adam to sleep. "He looks so at peace, so restful," the 49-year-old consumer affairs lawyer says as he cradles the toddler. "I forget that he's been harmed."

Adam was born blind, paralyzed and severely brain-damaged. He will never be able to care for himself. His twin brother Brandon, who arrived 23 minutes later on July 10,2 000, narrowly escaped the same fate: He suffers from hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. A shunt in his head keeps the pressure from building to dangerous levels.

Both boys would be fine today, says Susser, had been delivered by cesarean four days earlier, when his wife's water broke. The Boca Raton, Fla., couple say that surgeons refused their pleas to operate, wanting to wait until Judy was 34 weeks pregnant—despite tests indicating fetal distress. "We made two perfect babies," says Gary, "and they made mistake after mistake."

The Sussers have turned their grief to action: They're suing North Broward Hospital District and traveling to the state capital of Tallahassee--Adam in tow--to protest the proposed $250,000 limit on medical liability lawsuits. "We didn't deserve this," says Judy, 50, who has abandoned her paralegal career. "Sometime I look at other children playing and laughing, and I can't stand it. It's like a stab in the heart."

HEATHER LEWINSKI

Childhood surgery performed to repair a rare skin disorder left her face twisted beyond recognition

As a child Heather Lewinski felt helpless when a trusted plastic surgeon destroyed her face. Now, at 17, she is fighting to protect others from bad doctors. In February the Hamburg, N.Y., high school senior went to Washington, D.C., to urge Congress to reject the proposed cap on medical liability lawsuits. Her mission is hardly self-serving: In May 2001 a jury found Pittsburgh surgeon Dennis Hurwitz negligent and awarded Lewinski $3.5 million. "If we keep the laws strong," she says, "maybe no other little girl will go through what I have."

Hurwitz first operated on her when she was 8 to repair an indentation on her left jawbone caused by Parry-Romberg syndrome—a rare ailment that discolors and hardens the skin. "He told us he'd done this procedure many times," says Lewinski's mother, Lauri, 42. "Later we found out he'd never done it."

After the surgery left Heather's skin too tight, Hurwitz operated three more times. By then her lower face was caved in, and she couldn't close her mouth. It took 10 surgeries by two other doctors to repair the damage. Today Lewinski—who will attend Buffalo's Canisius College and hopes to become a special ed teacher—still bears prominent scars. "My biggest wish," she told lawmakers, "is that someday I will find a boy who will see me for what is on the inside of my heart and not my appearance."

KEVIN SMITH

A misdiagnosis led to a stroke, ending a veteran hip-hopper's dancing days

Identical twins Kevin and Keith Smith helped invent the art of break-dancing. "We had feet kicking, head spinning, everything," says Keith, 42. Saluted as hip-hop pioneers by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the South Bronx natives stopped performing in the mid-'80s but remained inseparable. Keith went on to manage an office, Kevin a mailroom—until Oct. 20, 1998, when a stroke paralyzed his right side.

For weeks Kevin had complained of agonizing groin pain, making multiple visits to nearby Montefiore Medical Center. Keith claims doctors diagnosed arthritis. In fact he was suffering from a heart infection. And last February, after more than two years of malpractice litigation, a jury awarded him $16.3 million. (The hospital, which is appealing, would not comment.)

Still, no fortune can reclaim his loss. He walks with a limp, speaks haltingly and has memory problems. "Before, when I heard music, I would dance to it," he says. "Now I just nod my head."

RICARDO ROMERO

What was supposed to have been an ordinary back operation turned a strong man helpless

Ricardo Romero had always led an active, strenuous life. The father of three worked as a dock foreman, loading fuel onto ships, and hunted or fished on weekends. Then, in the summer of 1997, Romero suffered a herniated disk on the job. After months of pain, he was referred by his doctor to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Merrimon W. Baker. And on July 15, 1998, Romero calmly entered Columbia Kingwood Medical Center, near his suburban Houston home, for what was described as a fairly routine operation. "We thought when you go to a reputable hospital," recalls his wife, Delores, 40, "you'll be looked after."

Instead Romero, now 45, experienced uncontrolled blood loss and, after an allegedly delayed transfusion, went into cardiac arrest. He was left brain-damaged, cognitively impaired, unable to walk without braces, incontinent and legally blind. He will not be able to work again and requires 24-hour care. In April 2000 the Romeros won a $40.6 million negligence award against the hospital, Baker and anesthesiologist Dr. William Scott Huie. At the trial it emerged that Baker, who still practices in Texas, was addicted to prescription drugs. He had operated on the wrong limb on two occasions, assaulted his ex-wife and threatened suicide the week before Romero's surgery. "That this doctor is allowed to continue to practice medicine is inexcusable," says Dan Lambe, executive director of Texas Watch, a consumer group. (The defendants would not comment for this article.)

Last January, however, an appeals court reversed the decision, ruling that while the hospital had erred in employing Baker and keeping him on, the charge that it had done so maliciously—central to the case—had not been proved. The Romeros are appealing in turn. Meanwhile Delores has quit her job as a bank teller to care for her husband, who after two years of intensive physical therapy can now partially dress himself and eat with a fork or spoon. "I no longer have a life of my own," Delores says. "I miss being a wife—I miss the intimacy. That's all gone. Now it's like I have another child."

MIKE HUREWITZ

He gave part of his liver to his ailing brother—then died of complications

To Mike Hurewitz, donating a lobe of his liver to save his brother Adam's life wasn't an act of heroism—it was simply the right thing to do. Liver transplants are safe for most donors, whose organs quickly regenerate. But the 57-year-old Albany, N.Y., newspaper reporter took no chances. For weeks before the Jan. 10, 2002, surgery at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital, he and wife Vickie, 52, slept separately because she'd battled colds and flu all winter. "He said, 'I don't want you to make me sick,' " she recalls. Apparently doing well the day after the transplant, Hurewitz savored a lobster dinner. It would be his last meal. The next morning he complained of nausea; a day later he was vomiting bile. "I've got three things going on-I can't deal with this," Vickie claims a ward nurse cried when family members called for help. As Hurewitz began spitting up blood, staffers rushed in. But it was too late. "I said, 'They killed him!' " Vickie recalls. " 'They killed him!' "

Mount Sinai president Dr. Larry Hollier says Hurewitz died of an infection "unrelated to his surgery or postsurgical care." But forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, whom Vickie hired to review the autopsy, disagrees: "It was a progressive infection starting from the time of surgery that went undiagnosed and untreated." The state suspended Mount Sinai's adult live liver transplant program until last March, after the hospital agreed to boost overburdened staff. Meanwhile, Adam, 56, a physician, recovered—and Vickie is suing Mount Sinai. "I walk around feeling like I'm half dead," she says. "Mike was the focus of my life."

STEPHANIE VALDEZ

A forgotten roll of surgical gauze caused an infection that ravaged her body—and her life

Left alone with two children after a 1997 divorce, Stephanie Valdez had her tubes tied. "I thought I'd never marry again," she says. Three years later the Dallas-area phone company rep met a man who wanted kids. So, on Sept. 19, 2000, she had her tubal ligation reversed.

Soon after, Valdez, 32, developed severe abdominal pain. Blaming cysts, her surgeon removed an ovary and a fallopian tube. But the real culprit was a roll of gauze he'd left in her pelvic cavity—and overlooked in the follow-up surgery. It festered for nearly a year, causing a raging infection. "She was dying in front of our eyes," says her mother, Cathy Orsbun, 53, with whom Valdez lived when her fiancé left and she grew too ill to work or care for her kids, now 11 and 13.

It took 12-hour surgery to save her. Valdez won a $1.85 million out-of-court settlement (which forbids naming defendants). Infertile, she tires easily and has little bowel control-but avoids checkups. "I can't bear the thought," she says, "of going to a doctor."

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