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scottsdale • phoenix
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Failure to timely diagnose patients results in serious injury, death

Published on April 8, 2015

In our society, we are taught that the doctor is always right. We rely heavily on our doctor’s diagnosis and are expected to follow through with any treatment he or she recommends. There’s only one problem with this: sometimes the doctors get it wrong. And when this happens – it can mean physical, emotional, and financial hardship for not only you, but your family, as well. In many cases, a misdiagnosis or a failure to diagnose in a timely manner can result in serious injury and even death.

This is exactly what happened to 39-year-old Muriel Tenney. Muriel underwent an incision and drainage procedure to treat a boil on her back. Three weeks later, she went to the emergency room with chest pain. A physician ruled out any life-threatening issues and discharged her. The next day, Muriel was back with the same pain. Two physicians saw her, Jean-Daniel Pierrot and Robert Ringelheim. After undergoing a chest X-ray and EKG, she was discharged.

A mere fourteen hours later, she was readmitted in a deteriorated condition. Hospitalist Matthew Zucker performed a workup and found that Muriel showed neurological deficits and incontinence. She underwent imaging studies and approximately 15 hours later, she was diagnosed as having a thoracic epidural abscess with spinal cord compression.

Because of this, Muriel is a now a paraplegic. She was previously a clerk earning minimum wage. Muriel sued Pierrot, Ringelheim, and Zucker, alleging failure to timely diagnose and treat the abscess by, among other things, ordering CT angiography. The jury awarded $19.25 million.

Muriel is not alone in cases like this. Forty-year-old Terry Hallmark suffered chest pain, vomiting and weakness for three days before he went in to a hospital emergency room. His physician, Charles Shipman, ordered blood work, an EKG, and chest and abdominal X-rays. The chest X-rays showed a mildly enlarged heart and the EKG also showed abnormalities. Shipman diagnosed a viral stomach issue and discharged Terry.

Terry’s conditions continued for two more days until he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where he later died of a cardiac-related cause. He is survived by his wife and two children. Terry’s wife sued Shipman alleging failure to diagnose coronary artery disease. Had her husband received a timely diagnosis, he could have undergone surgery and received lifesaving treatment. The suit did not claim loss of income. The jury awarded $4 million.

Muriel’s life will never be the same. She will always need assistance and medical attention due to the injuries she sustained. Terry lost his life. His two children will grow up without a father and his wife has been left behind to do it all alone. It is tragic cases like these that serve as examples of why we need to hold doctors accountable for their actions.

In our experience, your best protection in preventing a wrongful diagnosis or misdiagnosis is to get a second opinion. As seen with Muriel, this isn’t a surefire way to prevent misdiagnosis, but it’s a great start. Another thing we recommend doing once you’ve been diagnosed is asking your doctor what else it could be. It’s a simple question but it should get your doctor to stop and think. In so many hospitals and physician’s offices, doctors are rushing from one patient to the next. Since doctors aren’t used to being questioned by their patients, this should get him or her to stop and think.

Once you have a list of what else it could be, conduct your own research online. No one knows your body better than yourself. Does the diagnosis match how you’re feeling? Also, make an appointment with another doctor. However, do not tell that doctor what other diagnosis you received. You want to go through the exact same process and see where this new doctor ends up. Is the diagnosis the same? Does it match one of the diagnoses your first doctor mentioned as an alternative? From here, you can make your own judgment calls. Do you feel like you should see another doctor for a third opinion? Remember: despite the time and money it will cost you, when it comes to your health, the investment is worth it.

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The personal injury attorneys in Phoenix, Arizona, at Knapp & Roberts have the compassion and trial lawyer skills to tell your story to a jury. We will get to know you and your family so that we can help the jury understand what has happened to you and your family and how it has changed your lives. Obtain the compensation necessary for the injuries and losses you have suffered.