A Prince George's County Circuit jury awarded $367,000 yesterday to the survivors of a 50-year-old Laurel woman who died of cancer that the family claimed could have been treated if her physician had made a timely diagnosis.
The family's medical malpractice suit alleged that Mary McConnell, mother of two sons and a former switchboard operator, could have been cured had Dr. German A. de la Torre, her Laurel physician, listened to a specialist's warning. Instead, the suit alleged, the doctor treated McConnell's cancerous symptoms simply as an irritation of the colon.
McConnell sought a second medical opinion after 18 months of treatment by de la Torre and was told she had cancer of the colon that had spread to her liver and was terminal. She died last July.
The large malpractice award was the second granted in recent months for the treatment of a Laurel woman. In January, Helena Blanchfield was awarded $800,000 by a county Circuit Court jury after she claimed that her doctor treated her for terminal cancer she did not have. Later, a county judge cut the award in half.
Attorneys for de la Torre said yesterday that they would probably appeal the decision reached by the jury after a three-week trial.
The physician broke down in tears when the jury returned the verdict. saying he never had reason to believe the McConnell had cancer.
"I've been in practice for 25 years to help people," the doctor said. "It was an unjust suit against me. I did everything I was supposed to do -- everything was up to my standard of care."
Frank McConnell, the widower had asked his wife to seek the second opinion. "She was dumbfounded when she learned that she had cancer. We all had faith in Dr. de la Torre, and we did everything he said."
Mary McConnell had seen de la Torre for several years before she complained to him of rectal bleeding in November 1974, the suit alleged.
The physician sent her to a specialist who recommended certain follow-up treatments including frequent tests for cancer, according to the suit. However, de la Torre allegedly ignored the warning and failed to provide treatments, the suit said.
At the trial, de la Torre said he failed to follow these recommendations because McConnell did not complain again about the bleeding.
But in earlier depositions, presented as evidence at the trial, McConnell claimed she repeatedly told de la Torre of the bleeding during the year and a half of treatment under his sole care.
Expert witnesses for the McConnell family testified that a diagnosis of cancer at this time could have saved the woman. Countering this testimony was the claim by expert witnesses for the defense that Mary McConnell could not have been cured even with an earlier diagnosis.
In the spring of 1976 Frank McConnell told his wife to seek another opinion. "She said she wasn't going.I said, 'Either you go to have another opinion or I'll pick you up and carry you.'"
After examining her, the new physician told her she had cancer of the colon that had spread to her liver. He immediately performed an operation.
The day after the operation, Frank McConnell was told his wife's disease was terminal.
"I didn't even hear what he was saying," the widower said in an interview yesterday. "I just walked outside and cried."
McConnell said he only wished he had sent his wife for a second opinion earlier.