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$23 Million Malpractice Award Caps Couple's 6-Year Struggle

Eileen Wilson has given round-the-clock care to her bedridden husband, Fred, since shortly after his surgery in 2000.
Eileen Wilson has given round-the-clock care to her bedridden husband, Fred, since shortly after his surgery in 2000. (By Ray K. Saunders -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Love, and little else, has kept Eileen Wilson going for the past six years.

Love is why she bathes her husband, Fred. Love is why, even in the dead of night, she turns his body every two hours so that he won't develop bedsores that could kill him.

And love, she said, is why she has never given up her fight against the doctors who six years ago left Fred Wilson incapacitated and his wife of more than 30 years to care for him almost entirely on her own.

It was one mistake after another, she said, and last week, a D.C. Superior Court jury concluded that it never should have happened and awarded the Calvert County couple almost $23 million in damages.

Handed down after a month-long trial, the verdict is one of the largest medical malpractice awards in the District, home to many of the region's biggest hospitals and a hot spot in the national debate over whether malpractice awards should be limited.

But the couple's attorney, Bruce J. Klores, said that far from being the work of a runaway jury, the verdict was a reflection of the ordeal the couple have endured since Fred Wilson was diagnosed in 1999 with a neurological disorder known as hydrocephalus.

"It's not a McDonald's case," he said, alluding to the infamous lawsuit won by a customer of the fast-food chain who was scalded by steaming coffee. "It's anything but."

Not an uncommon condition, hydrocephalus causes excess spinal fluid to collect in the brain cavity; the resulting pressure on the brain can lead to memory loss, urinary incontinence and other problems.

The customary remedy is to insert a catheter connected to a small pump that drains the excess fluid through another catheter and into the abdomen.

In 1999, Wilson, then 59, had surgery to insert such a device, a kind of shunt, into his skull, and his memory and balance quickly improved.

But the incision did not heal, according to the account in the plaintiffs' pleadings. Instead of replacing the shunt, Wilson's neurosurgeon, John W. Barrett, sent Wilson to a plastic surgeon to see about closing the opening. The plastic surgeon, Rafael Convit, was unfamiliar with the device and how or even whether it should be covered, the plaintiffs said. But he went ahead and covered the exposed area with a flap of skin in May 2000.

Wilson went home the same day.

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