Thursday, March 05, 2009

Hospitals named in organ donation suit

Guidelines for evaluating donated organs are very strict and stringent procedures are in place to insure that donor organs are suitable for transplant. The system works very well but the risk to patients is never nil. Initially organs may appear to be suitable for transplant but after close examination some are found to be unacceptable. But, very rarely, in the rush to get an organ from the donor to the recipient for transplant, an unsuitable organ may slip through. My heart goes out to the recipients and families involved, but this rare incident should not dissuade those who's lives will be saved by a transplant or those who would be organ donors.

By Brendan O'Reilly The Southampton Press, New York

Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook University Medical Center are being sued over the March 2007 misdiagnosis of a Sag Harbor teen that led to four organ recipients contracting T-cell lymphoma, a rare form of aggressive cancer. Two of them died.

The organ recipients are alleging that several doctors, including two from Southampton, and the hospitals acted negligently and should have properly diagnosed the donor and prevented his organs from ever being transplanted.

How much money they will seek in damages is unclear at this time.

Doctors originally believed the teen, Alex Koehne, died on March 20, 2007 of bacterial meningitis at Stony Brook. But after his death, and after four of his organs were donated and transplanted, it was discovered that Alex actually had a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While meningitis cannot be passed by organ transplants, cancer can and, in this case, reportedly was.

In addition to the two Long Island hospitals, New York University Medical Center, which transplanted one of the organs, is also being sued, along with six doctors who were involved in either diagnosing and treating Alex or transplanting the organs, said Adam Kaufman, associate attorney for Dankner & Milstein, the law firm representing the organ recipients and their survivors. Four of the doctors—pediatricians Kimberly Fenton, Salma Syed and Daniel Sloniewski and neurologist Mary Andriola—handled the case at Stony Brook. The remaining two, pediatrician Robert Semlear and neurologist Norman Pflaster, were in Southampton.

Dr. Frank Darras, who transplanted a kidney at Stony Brook, is also named in one case, and transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Diflo at New York University Medical Center is named in two of the cases.

None could be reached for comment.

Representatives from Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook refused to discuss the lawsuit.

Marsha Kenny, a spokeswoman for Southampton Hospital, could confirm only that Alex was treated at Southampton then transferred to Stony Brook, but said she could not disclose any of his protected patient information.

Lauren Sheprow, a Stony Brook University Medical Center spokeswoman, also offered little. “We do not comment on matters before the court or on any specific patient due to state and federal patient privacy laws,” she said in an e-mail this week.

Ms. Sheprow did say that, in general, that organ donations and transplantation at Stony Brook are handled according to United Network for Organ Sharing and New York Organ Donor Network guidelines.

Alex’s parents, Jim and Lisa Koehne, learned the fate of the organ recipients early last year, after trying for some time to contact them, according to their attorney, Ed Burke Jr. of Sag Harbor.

Kitman Lee of Brooklyn, who had hepatitis and liver cancer, received Alex Koehne’s liver at New York University Medical Center. He died 116 days later from the same disease that killed Alex. Dankner & Milstein filed a lawsuit on behalf of his widow, Shu Ying Lee, and named NYU Medical Center in that case among the other defendants who are common to all four cases.

Jodie Lynn Shierts of Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, who had diabetes, received Alex Koehne’s pancreas at University of Minnesota Medical Center. The pancreas was removed 40 days later, but she still died from lymphoma, according to the American Journal of Transplantation account. Her mother, Jeanne Shierts, is bringing suit.

James Kelly of Mount Sinai received one of Alex Koehne’s kidneys and after undergoing chemotherapy is now cancer free, but the kidney had to be removed, Mr. Kaufman said. Gerardo Trueba of the Bronx received Alex’s other kidney and has similar circumstances, the attorney said.

The incident made national headlines in early 2008.

Following the one-year anniversary of Alex’s death, shortly after the incident became public, Mr. Burke said the New York State Department of Health absolved Stony Brook of any wrongdoing, and the Koehnes have no plans to sue the hospital.

Dankner & Milstein, a Manhattan law firm, is handling the case for all four victims, who are alleging that doctors stuck with the misdiagnosis of meningitis even when tests and other evidence pointed to another ailment.

“Doctors at Stony Brook Hospital adopted the diagnosis of meningitis even though no blood culture grew out any organism, so they didn’t know what kind of meningitis it was, if it was meningitis at all,” said lead attorney for the organ recipients, Edward Milstein, a partner at Dankner & Milstein.

The recipients and survivors are also suing the transplant surgeons, saying the doctors should have reviewed the donor’s medical records and realized that there was another cause of death—one that could pass from donor to recipient even after the donor’s death.

Mr. Kaufman said that because the organ recipients all live in different areas and several doctors and hospitals were involved, the law firm has now filed eight separate lawsuits. At some point, the cases may be consolidated into just one or two, but it could be a couple years before the lawsuits ever go to trial, he said.

Because Stony Brook is a state hospital, the lawsuit must be filed in the Court of Claims, Mr. Kaufman said. A suit against the hospital has been filed on behalf of all four recipients and their survivors in that state court, he said.

To sue Southampton Hospital or the doctors, the claimants filed cases in Suffolk County Supreme Court or their local state courts, Mr. Kaufman said.

“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Sign Your Donor Card & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”

Register to be a donor in Ontario or Download Donor Cards from Trillium Gift of Life Network
For other Canadian provinces click here

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In Great Britain, register at NHS Organ Donor Register

In Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register

Your generosity can save up to eight lives with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants. One tissue donor can help up to 100 other people by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves

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