Husband wins judgment against wife's surgeon

January 19, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

The husband of a Bel Air woman who became so despondent after a nose job that she eventually committed suicide won a $247,500 judgment yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court against the plastic surgeon who operated on her.

In a split verdict after a two-week trial, the jury found that Dr. Hans Wilhelmsen was not medically negligent. But it awarded damages because it found he did not get informed consent from patient Barbara Sullivan when he performed reconstructive rhinoplasty on her at St. Joseph Hospital in Towson in July 1987.

Mrs. Sullivan, 47, of Bel Air died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in her garage in March 1993, according to her attorney, Andrew H. Kahn.

He told the jury in closing arguments Monday that Mrs. Sullivan couldn't breathe after the surgery and was suffering "unbearable" facial pain, taking ever-stronger painkillers until she became addicted.

Pursuing the lawsuit Mrs. Sullivan filed in 1990, her husband, John Sullivan, sought damages for her pain and suffering, lost income and the loss of his wife's company.

Mr. Kahn said Mr. Sullivan was relieved that the trial was over.

But he said he might appeal the decision because Judge John Grason Turnbull II dismissed claims of fraud and breach of fiduciary duty at the close of the case and refused to reinstate a wrongful-death count dismissed by another judge before the trial.

David A. Levin, representing Dr. Wilhelmsen, said the doctor was "obviously disappointed."

"I don't know whether we will appeal, but I suspect they [the plaintiff] will. I don't think it's over."

The jury's verdict indicated that the surgery was competently performed, he said.

In his closing argument, Mr. Kahn charged that Dr. Wilhelmsen suffered from "powerful surgeon's syndrome." He said the doctor was too busy seeing 46 patients a day to spend enough time to explain the surgery to Mrs. Sullivan -- or even to determine whether she really wanted it.

The doctor ignored her instructions to work only on the tip of her nose, Mr. Kahn said, and operated all the way up to her skull.

"This surgery should have never happened," Mr. Kahn said. "She didn't need this. It was a whim, a fancy. She was approaching middle-age, set to go out and pursue a business career, and she [said], "I want my nose a little prettier.' Without knowing it, she was jumping off a diving board with no water."

But Mr. Levin told the jurors in his closing argument, "It was competently performed surgery; he had consent for it. The patient subsequently had trouble breathing -- whether real or imagined, I don't know. There is split opinion on that."

When she went to the doctor in February 1987, Mr. Levin said, Mrs. Sullivan said she had worked in a hospital admissions office for 10 years and knew about elective surgery.

She was warned about swelling of her nose after the surgery, he said, and told she would "look like she got run over by a Mack truck."

Mr. Levin emphasized that Mrs. Sullivan had signed a consent form.

Actors were brought in during the two-week trial to read some of the previously recorded testimony, including a deposition Mrs. Sullivan gave before her death. In that testimony, she said that she was rushed into surgery without a chance to read the consent form.

Though he considered his surgery successful and assured her the swelling would subside, the doctor said she insisted she couldn't breathe and wanted further surgery.

"Hostility built up in our doctor-patient relationship [because] I wouldn't operate any more," he said. Finding her complaint "bizarre," he advised her to seek psychiatric help.

"She ignored my medical advice, and I feel if she had [followed it], she would be sitting at that table today," he said.

Dr. Wilhelmsen said Mrs. Sullivan's was the only complaint he's had in 20 years of practice. According to testimony during the trial, Mrs. Sullivan visited about 100 different doctors and underwent about 10 more operations to deal with her complaints.

The jury award consisted of $32,500 for medical expenses, $40,000 for lost earnings and $175,000 for noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering, disfigurement, physical impairment and damage to the marital relationship.

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