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Blindness Following Back Surgery Leads To Million Dollar Settlement | Daytona Beach Medical Malpractice Attorney

Blindness Following Back Surgery Leads To Million Dollar Settlement

Most patients who undergo surgery want to know all the risks involved so that they can weigh those risks against the desired outcome of the surgery.

If the risks are too high, they may seek other treatment or alternatives. Most would agree that the possibility of blindness resulting from a surgery is something that should be discussed with a patient prior to the surgery

It wasn’t in this case and the young victim settled his medical malpractice claim for more than $1 million. According to the victim and his parents, the surgeon’s decision to perform both portions of a lengthy spinal procedure at once resulted in his blindness and partial paralysis of his leg. Blindness was never discussed as a possible risk.

The 20-year-old male with insulin dependent diabetes was admitted to the emergency room of a hospital at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday. The patient said he had dived from a boat dock and injured his back on a submerged rock.

In the emergency room, the patient was seen by a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic resident. A neurological exam performed shortly after admission showed upper leg weakness and no reflexes in his lower extremities; X-rays revealed a burst fracture of his lumbar spine at L-4.

The attending resident placed the patient on steroids and had him admitted. Over the next 40 hours, the patient’s neurological condition improved, although he had decreased sensation below both knees, and no reflexes in either leg.

A staff orthopedic surgeon reviewed the patient’s X-rays Monday afternoon and advised the orthopedic resident that surgery was necessary. Tuesday morning, the staff surgeon discussed with the patient (and his mother) the risks of the surgery, including nerve and vessel damage, bleeding, infection, and non-union. Neither the surgeon, the patient, nor the record recall a discussion regarding the risk of vision loss.

The surgery started at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday with the patient on his back. The attending orthopedic surgeon (assisted by a general surgery resident) removed part of the vertebra and bone fragments at L-4. He then placed a cage in the area of the partially removed vertebra.

Six hours after the procedure began, after verification from the anesthesia resident that the patient was stable enough for the second stage of the procedure, the patient was turned face down. The surgeon then mechanically secured the spine. He elected not to extend the surgery further to remove one bone fragment in the spinal cord that he determined was not pressing on any nerve roots.

The posterior surgery ended at 1:45 a.m., on Thursday. During the 12 hours of surgery, the patient lost nine liters of blood, which required administration of 23,000cc of fluid.

Post-op, the attending surgeon left for a camping trip in Maine. The patient was taken to the ICU and remained intubated. His face was swollen from the fluid replacement and he did not open his eyes for most of the day, Thursday. Around 7 p.m. that day, the patient complained he couldn’t see.

When the ICU staff was unable to reach the attending surgeon, they consulted with Ophthalmology and Neurology. Hyperbaric oxygen treatments were discussed.

At midnight, another surgeon examined the patient, who was now blind. Testing revealed that damage to the posterior optic nerve — likely caused by the heavy blood loss during the spine surgery — had caused the vision loss.

In addition to the permanent vision loss, the patient also suffered permanent paralysis of the front muscles of his right lower leg, causing foot drop.

The patient sued the attending and resident surgeons as their decision to complete both stages of the procedure during one operating session was directly responsible for his blindness.

All parties agreed to take this case to mediation, which led to a payment in excess of $1 million.

The surgeon was negligent in recommending surgery for the repair of the burst fracture at L4, rather than a trial of non-operative treatment.

The patient said that he could not fully exercise his informed consent to the surgery because he was not advised of the risk of vision loss. A common defense to this claim is that, even if the patient had been advised of the risk, he (and any reasonable person) still would have proceeded with the surgery.

However, the surgeon could have waited several days before proceeding with the second stage of the surgery instead of choosing to go forward with it, which increased blood loss.

A team preparing for a long and complex procedure can reduce the risk of compromising the patient’s health by having a clear plan with checkpoints that provide an opportunity for adjustments.

However, this man’s surgical team failed to do so and the decision to go forward with the surgery caused both his blindness and the trauma to the nerve roots affecting his right leg.

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