Tuesday, May 31, 2005

U. of C. Hospitals sued for error that resulted in removal of breast

U. of C. Hospitals sued for error that resulted in removal of breast

May 11, 2005

BY BEN FISCHER Sun-Times Springfield bureau

SPRINGFIELD -- A Will County woman sued the University of Chicago Hospitals on Tuesday after a January lab mix-up mistakenly diagnosed her with breast cancer and caused a surgeon to needlessly remove her healthy right breast.

The lawsuit comes as the legislative debate over jury awards in medical malpractice cases crescendos, with the General Assembly poised today to consider limits on how much victims can collect.

New Lenox resident Molly Akers, 33, a housewife and former fitness instructor, is asking for more than $200,000 in damages because of her pain, suffering and possible lost wages.

She said the trauma has been particularly difficult for her 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, who have endured a steady stream of disruptions in their life, not the least of which is a disabled mom.

"I couldn't pick her up," Akers said, referring to her daughter. "They don't understand that 'Mommy can't hold you.' "

Akers' lawyer, Bob Clifford, a former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, brought her to a statehouse press conference in hopes of propping up the argument against caps on malpractice jury awards. Lawyers say caps would punish the poor, are unconstitutional and wouldn't solve the problem of doctors leaving Illinois to escape rapidly escalating malpractice insurance rates.

Akers already was being treated for a rare form of cancer that had developed deep in her neck and shoulder muscles when her doctor, who is not named in the suit, had reason to believe the cancer had spread. After a biopsy initially came back positive, surgeons performed a mastectomy Feb. 2.

A week later, a nurse called Akers, asking her to come in the next day. Then, doctors broke the devastating news: There had never been any cancer in her breast.

"I came in, the surgeon started crying, and at that point, time just stops," she said. "I'm thinking, 'I'm 33 years old. What else can happen?' "

Lawyer lauds cooperation

Akers estimated that the unnecessary surgery, along with disfiguring her torso, put her overall recovery time back six weeks. She said she and her doctors are cautiously optimistic about her long-term recovery chances.

A hospital spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of Akers' case, but emphasized that personnel have cooperated with Akers and that administrators "deeply regret" what happened. Clifford praised the hospital's cooperation in the suit, but noted the legal action taken Tuesday is necessary to publicize the dangers of medical mistakes.

"If we hadn't sued, you'd never know about it," he said.

For the first time last week, the Legislature's Democratic leaders signaled their willingness to allow votes on jury award caps, dismaying long-term political allies like lawyers and organized labor. A House committee is slated to consider one proposal this morning.

Pro-caps state Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) said stories like Akers' -- as heart-wrenching as they may be -- aren't likely to influence anyone who believes malpractice awards are forcing doctors out of practice. "[Those stories] are countered against huge numbers of people who are having really limited health care in Illinois," he said.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company

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