Md. woman wins $2.35 million in malpractice case

Yesenia Rivera
Yesenia Rivera (Courtesy Of Julia Arfaa - Courtesy Of Julia Arfaa)
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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A 24-year-old Silver Spring woman arrived at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in an ambulance early one morning after she had been jarred awake by severe stomach pain. She told the doctor she had been in the same emergency room two days earlier with kidney stones.

Ten days later, she emerged from the fog of illness to terrible news: Doctors had misdiagnosed a kidney blockage, leading to an infection that had spread through her body. Part of one leg and part of one foot would have to be amputated.

Her family prayed for a miracle, but none came. The two amputations were performed; the tips of most of her fingers fell off.

Monday, a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury agreed that the doctors had been negligent in their treatment of Yesenia Rivera and awarded her $2.35 million in damages.

Rivera's attorney, Julia Arfaa, said that her client -- now 28 and a stay-at-home mother of three -- was happy about the jury's decision, but Arfaa declined to make Rivera available for an interview.

The jury, Arfaa said, "absolutely did the right thing. They listened to the evidence and they understood this case."

Of the two physicians named in the lawsuit -- Virendra K. Saxena and Dawn M. Thornton-- only Saxena still treats patients at Shady Grove. Neither has been the subject of disciplinary action in the last 10 years, according to the Maryland Board of Physicians Web site.

Thornton, who treats patients at Inova Fairfax Hospital, referred questions to her attorneys, who did not return phone calls or e-mails. Saxena did not return a call seeking comment.

A spokesman for Shady Grove said the hospital regrets "the life-changing situation faced by this patient" but noted that its internal investigation into the case found that "our physicians delivered care that is consistent with our hospital's commitment to quality and patient safety."

The doctors were working for a physicians group that had a contract with the hospital.

Rivera -- who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was 8 -- was working as a maid, living with a boyfriend and caring for her two children when she first visited the Shady Grove emergency room on Aug. 1, 2006, complaining of pain in her left side. She had no health insurance.

Scans showed a kidney stone; she was sent home with pain medication the following day.

When Rivera returned to the hospital Aug. 3, however, Saxena and Thornton decided she was either suffering from a gallbladder problem or an ectopic pregnancy that had ruptured. A septic infection went untreated for hours. Twelve hours passed before the error was discovered and a urologic surgeon removed the kidney blockage.

Eventually, gangrene set in. Several weeks later, doctors had to amputate part of Rivera's left leg and part of her right foot. The tips of her fingers fell off by themselves, a syndrome called "autoamputation."

Rivera spent much of the next six months in a hospital and then a nursing home as she underwent intense physical therapy, trying to recover her mobility, Arfaa said.

She now uses prosthetics and has been unable to work. Her attorneys said $190,000 of the jury's award would go to pay her past medical bills.

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