October 2018

Medical malpractice horror story captures national interest

Most of the time, medical malpractice is a civil matter. It takes something truly extraordinary and awful for a physician to wind up in criminal court due to acts of negligence.

That’s exactly what happened, however, in a case involving a neurosurgeon who earned the nickname “Dr. Death” from victims and prosecutors alike. A true-crime podcast about the case has recently captured the interest of millions — perhaps because it showcases just how badly the American medical system can — and has — failed its patients at every opportunity.

The neurosurgeon, a graduate of the University of Tennessee who went on to practice largely in Texas, was supposed to be performing minimally-invasive back surgeries. In one 18-month period, he ended up severely injuring, crippling or killing 33 of his patients.

Among other acts of negligence, the surgeon severed the nerves in one patient’s spine and screwed improper holes into her spine. A surgeon who was called on to try to treat some patients afterward testified that he didn’t believe the mistakes were accidental. The surgeries were so bad they seemed like they simply had to be intentional acts.

Additional evidence also led the police to believe the doctor’s “mistakes” were deliberate. The surgeon’s legal team claimed that he was simply inexperienced and badly trained — but jurors were not convinced. The doctor was ultimately convicted of injury to an elderly individual and aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison.

The podcast is helping more people become aware of just how easy it is for terrible doctors to keep treating patients — long after others in the medical profession are aware of the problems. In general, the case pulled back a curtain on the behind-the-scenes mechanics in hospitals that often allow bad doctors to merely resign and move on — their reputations intact. Hospitals would rather have a bad doctor quietly leave than risk the liability that might come along with admitting that the doctor made serious mistakes.

When surgeons commit medical malpractice — whether through acts of ordinary negligence or something more — patients and their survivors suffer greatly. While lawsuits can help families recover financially, it would be far better if such lawsuits were unnecessary — and many could be if hospitals would only put patients first.

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What is a ‘black box’ warning?

Every drug — whether it’s something as simple as an aspirin for a headache or something as complicated as one of the new biologic medications for certain chronic conditions — comes with its own risks.

Some of those risks, however, are certainly greater than others. Drugs that carry the greatest risks are given a “black box” warning.

Black box warnings are the strictest label that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can impose on a prescription drug. Physically, it looks very much like it sounds: a black box surrounds the list of severe or deadly adverse reactions that patients can experience while taking the drug. Black box warnings can be imposed at any point after a drug hits the market — which means that patients may already be taking the drug when a serious adverse reaction is discovered.

Black box warnings can be used to alert patients that the drug has possibly deadly interactions with another drug and warn them about dangerous dosages. However, most commonly, it’s there to warn users that the drug can cause life-threatening complications.

For example, some black box warnings include:

  • Anti-seizure medications like Lamictal and Topamax, which are also used to control chronic daily migraines, can cause a life-threatening skin reaction known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), particularly among children.
  • A drug called Linzess, designed to treat constipation in adults, can be fatal if given to children under six years of age.
  • Tygacil, a type of antibiotic in the tetracycline class, increases the risk of death to the patient and is, therefore, considered a “last resort” antibiotic that is to be used only when other options have failed.
  • It’s important to understand that just because a drug has a black box warning doesn’t mean that every patient will develop those complications. However, patients and caregivers have a right to know the risk they are taking when they take a certain drug.

When black box warnings are not communicated to patients by their doctors or pharmacists — patients can end up taking a drug without knowing the potential danger. In other cases, drug companies have hidden the dangers of a drug for longer than they should have because they don’t want doctors to stop prescribing it. In both those cases, injured patients or their families may have a right to recover for their damages.

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How do you know if a pain pump is operating correctly?

Pain pumps are usually on recommended for patients who are suffering from intractable pain that hasn’t responded to other forms of control.

Pain pumps, or intrathecal implants, can be used for chronic conditions, including those that are terminal. Some of the conditions that pain pumps are used to treat include pain caused by:

  • Cancer
  • Tumor pain
  • Nerve pain that causes a chronic burning sensation
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis

Ideally, pain pumps deliver small doses of morphine or another narcotic at regular intervals to keep pain at bay.

Unfortunately, pain pumps don’t always function the way that they’re designed. They sometimes deliver too much medication, sometimes too little — or even none at all!

If you or someone you love has a pain pump, there are some important things you should watch for.

Signs of an overdosed:

If someone is receiving too much of a narcotic, he or she may experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Excitability or a sense of anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Unconsciousness

In some cases, the pain pump may be doing its job correctly, but other medications — including sleep aids — can cause deadly interactions. In other cases, the pump may be malfunctioning and putting too much of the narcotic into the patient’s system all at once.

Anyone observing a patient with a pain pump who exhibits these symptoms should call 911 for assistance immediately.

Signs of an underdose:

The symptoms of an underdose can come on slowly. Far more than just a return of a patient’s pain, the sudden withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Muscle or nerve twitches
  • Itching
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Low blood pressure
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seating
  • Seizures
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Abdominal cramps

It’s important to understand that an underdose can be as dangerous as an overdose — especially if the patient’s pump is blocked or failing. A patient who has been on a pain pump for any length of time will have a biological dependency on the narcotics. It’s dangerous to reduce them abruptly.

Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect that a pain pump isn’t working properly.

A faulty or defective pain pump can be lethal. Be particularly cautious when a pump is new, refilled, adjusted, replaced or repaired. If you or someone you love suffers an injury due to a defective pain pump, it’s wise to discuss your legal options with an attorney.

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