I filed a medical malpractice lawsuit last Friday against Methodist Willowbrook Hospital and a spine surgeon on behalf of our clients, Larry and Susan.
Larry walked into Methodist Willowbrook Hospital for a spine surgeon to perform L4-S1 fusion surgery to help relieve some lower back pain that was radiating into his legs. Before the surgery, Larry was able to walk, bike, and lead a healthy and active lifestyle for a 71-year-old man.
During the surgery, the spine surgeon accidentally punctured the dura mater protective covering of Larry’s spinal cord. This is called an incidental durotomy. The surgeon noted this occurrence in the operative report and that he believed he had repaired it.
Initially, after Larry woke up from the surgery, things seemed all right. The next day, though, things took a terrible turn for the worse.
Early the next afternoon, a Methodist Willowbrook Hospital physical therapist noted that Larry had poor proprioception (spatial awareness) and the narrow base of support that he was unable to correct. He also observed that Larry felt like he was walking downhill. Later that night, the Methodist Willowbrook Hospital nursing staff noted that he had weak flexion of both feet, in both directions. They did not document informing a doctor of this concerning finding.
About an hour before midnight, a nurse observed that Larry was unable to void urine and that a bladder scan showed that his bladder was full. The nurse used a catheter to drain the urine, but did not notify the physician, as required by a doctor’s order.
A few hours later, just after midnight, the Methodist Willowbrook Hospital nurses noted the same finding, and also did not record informing a doctor. Around five hours later, a nurse finally paged the spine surgeon to let him know that Larry’s bladder was once again full and that he was complaining of numbness from the waist down to his feet.
Strangely, the spine surgeon ordered a routine MRI of Larry’s lumbar spine, rather than making the order stat, or as soon as possible.
Shortly after these events, there is a shift change of nurses. The nursing staff on the new shift recorded that Larry’s ability to flex his feet in both directions was moderate, rather than weak, but also noted that he had numbness in both lower extremities. There is no indication that the nurses informed the spine surgeonor anyone else of these findings.
Later that morning, a Methodist Willowbrook physical therapist found that Larry was complaining of numbness and heaviness to both lower extremities and that he was unsteady at times and easily lost his balance.
The surgeon got around to seeing Larry at 1:30 p.m., which is about seven and a half hours after he had been initially notified of any abnormalities. The surgeon noted that Larry could not urinate, complained of pain radiating into the legs, and had spatial awareness difficulty (proprioception). The routine MRI that he had ordered had not been performed by the Methodist Willowbrook staff, so after his evaluation he canceled it.
Throughout the rest of his admission to the hospital, Methodist Willowbrook Hospital nurses and therapists documented abnormalities, including numbness and minimal feeling in the buttocks, groin, and perineal areas, inability to void urine or sense when he needed to do so, no sensation to both legs, and only feeling pressure on both of his heels.
Despite all of these abnormalities, Larry was discharged from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility five days after his surgery. The discharge paperwork did not reference all of Larry’s well-documented deficiencies after the surgery, but did acknowledge numbness in the perineal and groin areas, which a physician assistant felt was “expected following surgery.”
As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer, I hire medical and nursing experts to review cases like Larry’s. In his case, the nursing expert provided a written report that both the nurses and therapy staffs at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital fell beneath the standard of care by not notifying physicians of their abnormal findings or advocating for care for Larry.
Our spine surgery expert concluded that Larry had developed an epidural hematoma (blood clot) after surgery. The blood clot compressed nerve roots, causing a condition called cauda equina compression. If unrelieved, it can cause irreversible nerve damage and loss of function.
Because epidural hematoma and cauda equina syndrome are known complications of lumbar/sacral spinal surgery, the surgeon, nurses, and therapists are required to look for abnormal neurologic signs. Our spine surgery expert believes that, if the nursing staff had notified a surgeon of Larry’s decline in neurological status, the surgeon would have ordered an MRI that would have shown an epidural hematoma, resulting in his immediate return to surgery to decompress the area. This would likely have led to a complete resolution of the symptoms.
Instead, because of the substandard care that was provided at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital by the spine surgeon and the hospital nurses and therapists, our experts concluded that Larry’s condition is permanent. He has absolutely no sensation below the waist, cannot control his bowel or bladder functions, and has lost sexual function. While his motor function is still intact—meaning that he can walk—because he has no sensation, it is dangerous and he frequently falls.
We are here to help
If you or a loved one has been seriously injured from poor health care at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital—or any other hospital in Texas—call the experienced medical malpractice lawyers at Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, at 281-580-8800, for a free consultation about your potential case.
Robert Painter is a medical malpractice and wrongful death attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He represents patients and family members in lawsuits against hospitals, pharmacies, doctors, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. He is a former hospital administrator who frequently speaks and writes on topics related to healthcare and medical negligence. He previously was the editor-in-chief of The Houston Lawyer magazine and now serves on the editorial board of the Texas Bar Journal.