It’s killing season in election year 2004. Special-interest groups have been lambasting trial lawyers, blaming these so-called “predators” for higher health insurance premiums and fewer specialty physicians. This year, the outcry is louder than ever because Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards was a plaintiff’s attorney.
But having lived through the consequences of a medical mistake, having lost my beloved wife to that same mistake, and having seen her case influence policy changes that will save countless lives, I offer a different perspective: Thank God for trial lawyers.
Late in 1985, my wife, Susan, felt a small lump in her breast. A nurse friend suggested she have it examined at a local hospital. She did.
The technician administering the mammogram told Susie she shouldn’t worry, that the hospital would contact her if anything was wrong.
No one from the hospital ever contacted her.
Five months later, Susie went to the doctor for her annual checkup. She told the doctor about the lump and the mammogram. He concluded her exam by exclaiming that she was in good health and her only worry would be keeping busy when she was 80.
He was wrong.
He overlooked the letter that was lying in Susie’s file, the letter from the hospital indicating that the mammogram was inconclusive, the letter recommending a follow-up mammogram and needle biopsy.
Susie never received that letter because the hospital’s policy at that time was to correspond only with the doctor. She would not visit him for another year.
The following 12 months were eventful ones for us. Our three daughters were busy with school, athletics and social events. We were lucky with our business activities. Susie had even come to grips with reaching the milestone age of 40, and celebrated in grand style. We never again enjoyed a birthday with the same carefree attitude.
Susie had her annual checkup in June 1987. This time, the doctor noticed the letter in her file about the mammogram. For 18 months, it had sat in that folder, unread and inactive, while the lump in my wife’s breast had been growing unabated.
After reading the letter, the doctor gave my wife the name of a surgeon. The next day, the surgeon told her the lump was malignant. He performed a mastectomy. He also removed surrounding lymph nodes to determine whether the cancer had spread.
The diagnosis was Stage 2 breast cancer. Susie was afraid, to be sure. But her strongest emotion was guilt. How did this happen? What had she done wrong?
Every three weeks, we drove to chemotherapy treatments at the IU Medical Center. Her treatments triggered debilitating side effects: hair loss, violent attacks of nausea, menopause, fatigue and depression. Susie’s feelings of self-doubt and guilt continued. The reassurances of her family, friends and co-workers could not persuade her otherwise.
On the advice of a friend, we met with a local firm that specializes in medical malpractice law. The attorneys we met with were not predatory. They were caring and concerned. They wanted to do the right thing. They explained that one does not casually accuse a doctor of malpractice. They reminded us that such allegations have serious ramifications.
But once they’d investigated, they found that the facts and law supported a claim.
Susie’s trial lawyers not only became her representatives and advocates for justice; they also became caring friends. They gathered additional evidence, took depositions and eventually secured admissions of negligence from the hospital, its radiologist and her OB/GYN. She was vindicated.
Equally important, the hospital now routinely sends letters to all its women patients after administering mammograms.
Susie eventually came to peace with herself and with the fact that she would not see her daughters graduate from college, or marry. She accepted, too, that she’d never get to hold her grandchildren.
But in a world that loathes them (until their own case comes along), Susie thanked God for her trial lawyers. On Sunday, April 2, 2000, she may even have thanked Him in person.
By James R. Maguire