Woman sues over 7 personalities

March 21, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A Westminster woman who claims her seven personalities were unleashed after a 1989 mastectomy is seeking $1.5 million from the Carroll County surgeons who performed the procedure.

Linda Burt, 47, asserts in a trial that began yesterday before a Carroll jury that Drs. Donald D. Coker and John E. Steers "breached applicable standards of care" in treating a post-operation infection that left Ms. Burt with "such extensive scarring that it will not be possible for her to undergo a satisfactory reconstruction of the breast."

The plaintiff is "basically unable to function. She has never really recovered from that procedure" at Carroll County General Hospital, her lawyer, Judith S. Stainbrook, told the Circuit Court jury of five women and one man.

"Dr. Coker's and Dr. Steers' conduct contributed significantly to Ms. Burt's present condition," she said.

Several witnesses, including at least one psychiatrist, are expected to tell the jury today that Ms. Burt suffers depression periodically, is unable to maintain a home or a job, and suffers from multiple personality disorder.

That disorder, in which any one of her estimated seven personalities can emerge without notice, was brought about by the treatment of Ms. Burt's post-mastectomy infection, Ms. Stainbrook told the jury in an opening statement.

The doctors -- both local surgeons who have practiced for more than two decades -- deny that their actions had anything to do with Ms. Burt's mental illnesses, their attorney told the jury.

"You will learn that the plaintiff's psychological problems today are not the result of these two doctors," Susan Boyce said in her opening statement. "Rather, they are the result of a tragic childhood in which she was sexually abused over a long period."

Ms. Stainbrook also talked of Ms. Burt's childhood of abuse, of her two failed marriages, of her commitments to psychiatric hospitals and of her difficulties in carrying on with her life.

The suit, filed in 1993, was heard by the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Board, which awarded Ms. Burt $125,000 in damages. The current trial is the doctors' appeal of that decision.

According to Ms. Stainbrook and documents filed in the suit, Ms. Burt discovered a lump in her breast in 1989 and several months later was referred to Dr. Steers. He performed a biopsy, found the lump to be cancerous and told Ms. Burt that she should be treated.

Doctors Steers and Coker performed the mastectomy April 27, 1989. Several days later, an infection formed at the incision where the breast tissue was removed. Over three days, Dr. Coker prescribed antibiotics and removed several surgical staples in an attempt to drain the infection.

When that didn't work, Dr. Coker decided to perform another procedure to drain fluid and remove infected tissue.

Ms. Stainbrook claims the procedure was done without proper sterile or surgical precautions, causing Ms. Burt "excruciating pain" and causing her to begin screaming.

Ms. Boyce contended that the procedure -- which is routinely performed on an out-patient basis in doctors' offices -- was quick, uneventful and caused little discomfort to Ms. Burt.

"You will hear testimony in this case that Dr. Steers and Dr. Coker did nothing wrong," Ms. Boyce said.

"They tried very hard to help this woman in every way they could."

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