In the spring of 1976, Helena Blanchfield of Laurel was informed by her doctor that she had a form of bone cancer and only one month to a year to live.
Her world fell apart.The 48-year-old divorced mother of four quit her job as a school bus driver, broke off her relationship with her fiance and had her adult children move back to live with her. Even as she underwent agonizing chemotherapy treatment for the disease, she made her own funeral arrangements.
After five months passed, she traveled to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for a second opinion. The doctors there told her why she was still alive.
She never had cancer.
Late Wednesday, in a courtroom in Upper Marlboro, a Circuit Court jury decided that the doctor who originally diagnosed the bone cancer should pay Blanchfield $800,000 for her suffering. It was, according to court officials, the largest medical malpractice award in Prince George's County history.
The doctor, Lewis H. Dennis of Silver Spring, a blood and cancer treatment specialist, said yesterday that he was astounded by the verdict. "I'm crushed . . . it was outrageous," he said. "It was because I'm a rich physician. This woman has no injury." His lawyer said he would ask for a reduction of the award.
But Blanchfield said the money brought little comfort. Doctors testified at her trial that, as a result of the cancer treatment, she is more likely to contract cancer someday than the average person. And now she is trying to put her life together again.
According to testimony at the trial and interviews with the principals, the sage of Helena Blanchfield began in February 1976, when she entered Doctor's Hospital in Lanham, complaining of vision problems. She was discharged several weeks later and asked by Dennis to make an appointment to see him.
At that appointment, on March 23, he informed her that she had a malignant tumor of the bone marrow known as multiple myeloma.
She asked if it was curable. He said it was not and that she had from one month to a year to live. He said she should get her affairs in order and try to enjoy as much of the time left that she had.
"My whole world fell around me, everything," Blanchfield said yesterday. "As I drove home thinking through my head, I said, 'Dear God, what do I tell my children?' Especially my daughter Rose. I didn't know on earth what I was going to say."
Blanchfield started chemotherapy treatment that day. It made her sick. She threw up, and suffered constant diarrhea. She was weak and slept much of the day.
"When you're weak like that," she said, "you lay down for a few minutes, get up for 15 minutes, and lay down again."
Blanchfield decided to quit her job as a foreman in the school bus parking lot. The job earned her about $12,000 annually. Because of her medical expenses, which were about $10,000, her lawyer says, she was forced to mortgage her home. In order for her to receive disability payments, Dr. Dennis sent a letter to the Social Security Administration, saying that she had "multiple myeloma . . . invariable fatal."
Her second oldest son, Joseph, and his wife, Diana, moved in with her. She stayed home. She said she suffered from depression. She said her weight increased.
"I didn't go with folks anymore," she testified. "I couldn't carry on a proper conversation. It would take me a little bit of time to think how I was feeling . . . My speech was on the slur side. I've been in Laurel since I was two years old, and would you believe I had difficulty finding my way home.
"The first time it happened I was frightened to death. I just thought, 'what's going on.' Then I realized if I just keep wandering around, everything (would become) familiar to me. I was so tired and weak, I was no longer able to function as a human being."
Blanchard made funeral arrangements with the same funeral home that had buried her estranged husband several years before.
The man she was currently seeing tried to give her support. Too much, it turned out. They had planned to marry, but Blanchfield believed that she had now become a burden on him. She felt she was ruining his life, and told him she wanted the relationship to end. Finally he stopped seeing her.
Her emotional state got worse. She said the effects of the chemotherapy had debilitated her. She had nightmares. "Every night when I kissed my daughter (13-year-old Rose), I thought whether this would be my last kiss. I didn't want her to be the one to find me dead in the morning."
In August, a friend suggested that she get a second opinion on her condition from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She spent several weeks there.
She met other cancer patients. "I was there for 20 days. It was worse, because I was watching people die every day. People you chit-chat with and get to know.It's so different from a hospital here. Here you go in and it's just a handful that die. Up there, it's a handful that go home."
On Sept. 8, doctors brought her surprising news. She did not have bone cancer; she never had any bone cancer, and she never should have been put on chemotherapy.
Blanchfield thought the New York doctors were lying. First her doctor had told her that she was dying, and now other doctors said she was going to live. "I figured I was so far gone, they're not even going to put me back on chemotherapy.I thought it must be a matter of just a couple of days now." o
She called her children from the hospital in New York.She decided to tell them just what the doctors had told her.
"Joseph answered the phone. I told him the news. He cried and he cried and he cried, and we both cried. He was crying out of joy and I was crying because I thought I was telling him something that wasn't true.' When she hung up, Blanchfield truly believed she had deceived her children.
At home, her children and friends were happy, but she grew sadder. "I just thought every day, is this the day? But everytime I opened my eyes in the morning, I realized I was still there."
In November, she consulted Marvin Ellin, a lawyer who specializes in malpractice cases. Blanchfield sued Dennis, and after an eight-day trial, the jury awarded her $800,000.
Dennis' attorney said he took "violent exception" to the award and added that Dennis would challenge it. He also refused to say whether Dennis was insured against malpractice suits.
Blanchfield, meanwhile, still lives with her daughter, Rose, in an apartment in Laurel and is undergoing psychiatric treatment. She says she still has problems of dryness in her eyes and mouth, although the vision problem she complained of in 1976 left her within weeks, following a period of anxiety about a brother who was seriously injured in an accident. Most of all, she says, she fears that the chemotherapy treatments she had may in fact cause her to contract cancer.
At the trial, medical experts testified that the chemotherapy treatments make it more likely that she will contract cancer someday than most persons.
"I would gladly give up that money to begin again," she said. "I'd just like to go back there and pick up my life where it ended. It's been a nightmare for all of us."