Jury Finds for Doctor in Colon Perforation in Bypass Surgery Death – Estate of Dornhecker v. Dr. Applebaum

Despite testimony that a quicker response by a Cook County hospital’s staff could have increased a patient’s chance of survival by ten percent, a Chicago jury finds in favor of the defendant doctors and hospital. The Cook County medical malpractice lawsuit of Estate of Edward W. Dornhecker, deceased v. Dr. Robert E. Applebaum, SSM Regional Health Services d/b/a St. Francis Hospital & Health Center, 07 L 13665, was brought by the decedent’s family after he died of heart surgery complications.

In 2005, Edward Dornhecker underwent coronary artery bypass graph surgery at St. Francis Hospital, now called MetroSouth Medical Center, in Blue Island, Illinois. The surgery was performed by Dr. Robert Applebaum and all reports indicated that the surgery had gone well. However, the next evening, Dornhecker began to experience problems breathing. His oxygenation progressively worsened to the point that he needed to be intubated transferred to the ICU.
Upon his transfer to the ICU at 4:00 a.m., one of the nurses noted a foul-smelling, brown liquid coming from the decedent’s chest. The liquid was coming from the area from where a chest drainage tube had been removed the prior morning. The nurse called the on-call cardiologist and pulmonologist to report a “foul-smelling fecal matter” oozing from Dornhecker’s chest. However, it was not until Dr. Applebaum arrived at the hospital hours later that anything was done.

Dr. Applebaum and a general surgeon performed an exploratory surgeon to identify the source of the fecal drainage. It revealed a one-centimeter hole in Dornhecker’s colon near the site of the chest tube incision. The surgeons resected Dornhecker’s colon in order to repair the hole and placed Dornhecker on a course of antibiotics. And while Dornhecker was able to recover from the resulting sepsis, he was no longer able to breathe on his own. As a result, he remained hospitalized in the ICU for the next six months until his death.

Following his death, Dornhecker’s surviving family brought a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Applebaum, St. Francis Hospital, and its nurses. The medical malpractice complaint accused Dr. Applebaum of negligently perforating his colon while placing the chest tube during his bypass surgery. The complaint went on to allege that Dr. Applebaum’s negligence caused Dornhecker’s sepsis and subsequent death.

In his defense, Dr. Applebaum argued that Dornhecker’s prior abdominal surgeries had caused his anatomy to be drastically different than the average person’s. As a result, his colon was in an unexpected place. However, Dr. Applebaum continued to contend that he did not make a surgical error and did not actually perforate Dornhecker’s colon. Instead, Dr. Applebaum argued that the colon had spontaneously perforated due to Dornhecker’s weak bowel walls and preexisting bowel ischemia.

The medical malpractice complaint also accused both the telemetry nurse and the ICU nurse of failing to notify Dr. Applebaum about the oozing fecal material in a timely fashion. The complaint contented that if the nurses had notified Dr. Applebaum within one hour of discovering the fecal drainage, instead of the three hour gap, that it could have increased Dornhecker’s chance of survival by ten percent.

In its defense, St. Francis Hospital argued that its telemetry nurse was not responsible fro reporting on the patient’s condition because he had been transferred to the ICU nurse’s care. And while the telemetry nurse would have been required to report the condition to directly Dr. Applebaum, the ICU nurse was correct in reporting it to the on-call surgeon. The hospital contended that the standard of care did not require the ICU nurse to notify Dr. Applebaum of Dornhecker’s condition until he was more stable, which she contended was at 7:00 a.m.

After two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury entered a verdict in favor of all the defendants. The decedent’s estate was not awarded any of the $1.8 million it had asked the jury to award it. This request was almost $1 million more than the $850,000 demand the estate had made to settle prior to the medical malpractice trial. And while the defendants’ combined settlement offer never reached more than $30,000; it was more than the plaintiffs and their attorney were left with at the trial’s conclusion.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Chicago medical malpractice matters for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Willowbrook, Harwood Heights, Palos Heights, Mount Prospect, and Matteson.

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