Jury awards $1.24 million in lawsuit over paralysis Silver Spring man claims misdiagnosis

November 04, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Being deaf didn't stop Leo M. Jacobs from doing what he wanted with his life. A math teacher for more than 40 years, he later wrote one of the best-selling books on deafness and was named to a special chair at Gallaudet University, the prestigious school for the deaf.

But six years ago, Jacobs, 79, lost his cherished independence, becoming paralyzed from the waist down after an abscess near his spinal cord was not diagnosed properly.

Today, he stands to receive $1.24 million, awarded by a Howard County Circuit Court jury after it found a Laurel urologist and medical practice responsible for Jacobs' life as a paraplegic.

The money is small compensation to the Silver Spring man, who needs a live-in aide to help him get out of bed in the morning and ready him for sleep at night.

"I can hardly consider deafness a challenge as I was born deaf to a deaf family," Jacobs said in an interview conducted through a telephone system for the deaf. "It was an ordinary life experience. "For me, however, paralysis has placed me in an unenviable and humiliating position.

"People usually discuss everything with my aide and not me. Even though I pay for everything, they still tend to pat me on the shoulder instead of shaking my hand."

Jacobs wrote "A Deaf Adult Speaks Out," a best-selling book considered an important work.

After a two-week trial, the jury deliberated about seven hours Friday and decided that Dr. Thomas A. MacLean and the Laurel practice of MacLean, Kishel and Appelstein had misdiagnosed an abscess near Jacobs' spinal cord.

The jury individually absolved three other doctors -- John J. Kishel, Marc B. Appelstein and Gregory McCormack -- and Howard County General Hospital of any liability.

The jury decided that Dr. Meade Flynn had been negligent, but Judge Raymond J. Kane struck down the finding, ruling that the complaint against Flynn was beyond the statute of limitations.

Dr. Jerry E. Seals of Ellicott City settled his case for an undisclosed amount before it went to trial.

May seek reconsideration

Steven F. Barley, attorney for MacLean, said his client was not at fault in the case and plans to ask the judge to reconsider the jury's finding.

Jacobs never proved that anything MacLean did caused Jacobs' condition, Barley said.

The abscess Jacobs suffered from is rare and difficult to diagnose, he said.

MacLean, as a urologist, did everything he was supposed to do, the attorney said, calling in an infectious disease specialist -- Seals -- to help diagnose Jacobs' condition.

"I, frankly, am baffled by the way [the jury] came out on it," Barley said. "Unfortunately, medicine can't save everybody and prevent bad outcomes all the time."

Randell Ogg, Jacobs' attorney, who said his client first consulted MacLean for a prostate problem, said the doctor should have recommended a neurosurgeon when he sent Jacobs to Howard County General Hospital in Columbia for persistent back pain in February 1991.

In the hospital, MacLean did not examine Jacobs when he cried out in pain, Ogg said, and simply prescribed more pain medication -- an allegation MacLean denies.

Lawsuit filed in 1995

The lawsuit, originally filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court in 1995, said Jacobs' condition worsened.

Eleven days after Jacobs was admitted to the hospital, he became paralyzed, Ogg said.

Jacobs "wasn't expecting to spend his golden years with a second handicap," Ogg said.

The attorney said additional litigation is pending in Fremont, Calif., against two doctors who saw Jacobs when he initially complained of pain and ran a fever.

Part of the problem in Howard County stemmed from the fact that the doctors did not take extra steps to ensure they were communicating properly with a deaf person, Ogg said. They relied on family members to provide sign language, he said.

Sophisticated X-rays were taken of Jacobs' lower back, rather than the middle part of his back where the pain was greatest, Ogg said.

"I think perhaps the doctors didn't take the extra time necessary when you have a deaf patient to use writings and drawings to help locate where the pain was," Ogg said. "They could have very simply [using an anatomy sketch] had Mr. Jacobs point where the pain is, and we would not be here today."

But for Jacobs, the doctors should not have had to rely on a sign language interpreter anyway. Doctors are supposed to diagnose correctly even if the victim is unconscious and can't communicate at all, he said.

A long career

Today, Jacobs looks back on a career in which he taught math at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley for more than 40 years and was a visiting professor at Gallaudet University in Washington from 1971 to 1972.

"It's no fun to be confined to a wheelchair after so many years of independence," he said.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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