UM Medical System ordered to pay family $10 million

Lawyer says fatal ailment treated `like a bee sting'

October 25, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury ordered the University of Maryland Medical System yesterday to pay $10 million for negligence in failing to recognize a treatable disorder that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old.

The family of Benjamin Strange sued the hospital after they discovered that their son, who was born mildly retarded, would have had a 90 percent chance of surviving his rare blood disorder if doctors had given him plasma promptly.

"This was a medical emergency, and the hospital treated it like a bee sting," said the family's attorney, Bob Weltchek.

The jury deliberated for 30 minutes yesterday morning after an eight-day trial in Baltimore Circuit Court. Some of the jurors hugged Strange's parents outside the courtroom after the verdict was read, Weltchek said.

"I feel relieved," Strange's mother, Margaret Hutchings, said yesterday. "I've been fighting for Ben since he was born. It was really important for me to fight this last fight for him."

Strange contracted the blood disorder, thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura, or TTP, in July 1999, and died about six weeks later in the hospital. The disorder is fatal if not cured.

Though rare, the blood disorder is in "every medical textbook," Weltchek said. It is common enough, he said, that one of the nine jurors who decided the case had been treated for TTP.

Appeal possible

Natalie McSherry, a lawyer representing the hospital, said she was "disappointed in the verdict."

McSherry said Strange came to the hospital after a six-week illness, and doctors did not initially think he had TTP because he showed a "very unusual presentation of the disease."

She said the hospital may appeal the verdict.

"The jury allowed emotion and sympathy to overrule the evidence," McSherry said.

Strange, who lived in Annapolis, was born with a disease called Klinefelter's syndrome, which is similar to Down syndrome.

His blood disorder had nothing to do with that condition, his mother said. Doctors are not clear about the cause of TTP.

"Mentally, Ben was like any other 19-year-old," Hutchings said. "He was interested in staying up with trends and music. He had girlfriends. He was flirting with the nurses until the day before he died."

Started with seizure

Strange's parents realized something was wrong when he had a seizure July 26, 1999. He was taken to the doctor, and found to have a low blood and platelet count. Platelets are the smallest cells in the blood, which help it clot.

For the next few weeks, Strange was tired, weak and experienced chest pain. He was being monitored by a doctor.

On Sept. 8, after days of vomiting, headache and fever, he was admitted to Anne Arundel General Hospital.

The next day, Anne Arundel transferred him to University of Maryland's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for specialized care.

When he arrived he was seen by a blood specialist, who wrote in his notes that Strange may have contracted TTP, but he was not treated for the disease, according to the lawsuit.

Test results for TTP can be determined in 30 minutes, Weltchek said.

Strange's platelet count was 7,000, while the normal range is 153,000 to 367,000.

For the next few days, several doctors visited Strange and administered tests and medications. As his condition deteriorated, doctors noted his condition was stable, according to the lawsuit.

At 3:50 a.m. Sept. 12 -- more than three days after he was admitted -- doctors confirmed a diagnosis of TTP. As they prepared to give him the needed plasma, he died.

Strange's mother, who is a nurse, said she knew doctors botched her son's care when she read the autopsy report, and saw he died from an easily curable disorder.

"They said they did everything they could," she said. "But my son probably would have lived if he was treated properly."

Damage limit

The jury awarded the family $10 million for pain and suffering -- $6 million for Strange's and $4 million for his parents'.

Maryland law limits the amount of damages the family can collect -- $560,000 for Strange's pain and suffering, $840,000 for his parents. Weltchek said he may challenge the constitutionality of that law to try to remove the limit.

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