Improper asthma medication led to boy's brain damage, suit claims

November 29, 1990|By Jonathan Bor

A Baltimore woman charged in a lawsuit yesterday that three doctors and an area hospital allowed her son's asthma medication to reach toxic levels, causing a catastrophic seizure that left him profoundly brain damaged.

Dorothy Hook, the mother of 12-year-old Anthony G. August, said she wants not only to recoup money to provide for her son's needs, but also to alert parents and doctors to the dangers of the drug theophylline when it is not properly monitored.

"He doesn't play with toys. He doesn't feed himself. He's unable to talk. He's unable to do anything whatsoever for himself," Mrs. Hook said of her son. She said Anthony was "a perfectly healthy child who rode bikes, climbed trees, ran up and down the alley and yelled mommy" before he suffered a violent seizure in 1986 that left him brain damaged. "He was so good at video games, and he challenged you to play the games with him."

Her suit, filed yesterday in the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Office, comes a month after the Association of Trial Lawyers of America held a news conference in Washington to warn of the dangers of theophylline overdoses.

The trial lawyers, joined by a few doctors, highlighted the case of a 7-year-old girl from Washington state who suffered severe brain damage in 1986 when doctors increased the theophylline she was taking for the flu. The girl won a $6.9 million settlement.

While some allergists and asthma specialists supported the lawyers' warnings, many others accused them of staging a publicity stunt that overemphasized mishaps with a drug that, when properly used, helps millions of Americans manage a life-threatening illness.

Mrs. Hook, represented by lawyers Howard A. Janet and Gary I. Strausberg, named as defendants two family physicians, Dr. Walter J. Alt and Dr. Lalah C. Newbrough; a pediatric neurologist, Dr. Brian P. Ahlstrom; and the University of Maryland Hospital, where Dr. Ahlstrom worked at the time.

Dr. Ahlstrom now works in Pennsylvania and is no longer affiliated with the University of Maryland. The three doctors could not be reached for comment, and a hospital spokeswoman said she could not comment because officials had not yet been served with legal papers.

In her complaint, Mrs. Hook said the family physicians had prescribed heavy doses of a theophylline-containing drug, Quibron, for Anthony's asthma, while the neurologist prescribed another drug for a minor seizure disorder.

The anti-seizure drug, her lawyers contend, has the effect of speeding the body's elimination of theophylline -- lowering the amount of theophylline circulating in the bloodstream. But the lawyers contend that when the neurologist discontinued the seizure drug, the levels of theophylline in his bloodstream soared -- producing a seizure on Feb. 1, 1986, that left him brain damaged. He was treated at St. Agnes Hospital, which is not named in the suit, after the seizure.

Mrs. Hook claims the three doctors failed to properly monitor the theophylline levels in the boy's bloodstream, take precautions to avoid toxicity and communicate about the interactions of the two drugs. She said the hospital failed to establish safe practices for its pediatric neurologists.

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