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Doctor files medical-malpractice suit

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By Carol Gentry and Mary Jo Melone
7/2/2010 © Health News Florida

Physicians complain often about frivolous medical-malpractice lawsuits. But what happens when it's the physician who dies and her husband -- also a physician -- files the suit?

In an unusual case, a St. Petersburg surgeon is being sued for negligence in the case of a Chicago physician who bled to death last July following a common and usually safe surgery, an appendectomy.

Rehnke

Ernest Rehnke, a familiar figure in ads promoting bariatric surgery, is accused of neglecting Sukunya “Susie” Dunphy, 42, after taking out her appendix via laparoscopic surgery.

Dunphy, a specialist in helping patients who had spinal-cord injuries, sought help from the nurses at Palms of Pasadena Hospital when she realized her blood pressure had plummeted, the lawsuit says. But they dismissed her concerns, it says.

“I can envision no circumstance where a healthy 42-year-old should bleed to death following a laparoscopic appendectomy in an American hospital,” said Mark H. Perenich, the plaintiff’s attorney.

Perenich filed suit against the surgeon on behalf of the woman’s family: Husband James P. Dunphy, who is also a physician in Chicago, and their sons, ages 7 and 9. The widower sent word via the attorney that he did not feel up to an interview.

Perenich said he recently sent notice to Palms of Pasadena Hospital that he intends to sue, but has not yet finished fact-finding.

“We are conducting a good-faith investigation concerning the care she received,” Perenich said in an e-mail response to questions. “As such, I think it would be unfair to blame Dr. Rehnke entirely for the loss of her life, as I'm sure he would have attended to her medical situation had he known” that she had dangerously low blood pressure.

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Dunphy

“Once I have had an opportunity to depose the hospital staff, I will be in a better position to more accurately pinpoint why she apparently languished in the hospital,” Perenich wrote.

Neither Rehnke nor a spokeswoman for Palms of Pasadena returned calls from Health News Florida this week.

Perenich said the Dunphy family was staying in St. Petersburg Beach last year while James Dunphy, an internist, attended a continuing-education course. Palms of Pasadena is the nearest hospital, just over the bridge from the beach.

Susie Dunphy, who complained of abdominal pain, was admitted to Palms through the emergency room on the afternoon of July 29, according to the suit. A CT scan showed an inflamed appendix.

Rehnke performed the laparoscopic appendectomy that evening and Dunphy was transferred to a room just before midnight. According to the lawsuit, a number of things went wrong after that:

--Nurses gave Dunphy a second dose of blood thinner by mistake, contrary to Rehnke’s order, at 4:41 a.m.

--When Rehnke saw her early that morning, he noted that her abdomen was slightly distended but apparently failed to notice that her blood pressure had been falling throughout the early morning hours.

--Dunphy told the nurses at 8 a.m. that she was a physician and knew there was a problem with her blood pressure. An unidentified nurse wrote in the chart that Dunphy was merely engaged in “attention seeking behavior.” 

--By 9 a.m. Dunphy’s blood pressure was down to 60/40 and she became dizzy while getting out of bed. The nurses contacted Rehnke, the suit says, but no tests were ordered and no one on the nursing staff checked on her for five hours.

--She was found without a pulse, dead from internal bleeding, just after 2:30. A Code Blue restored her breathing by ventilator, but she was brain-dead. Life-support was withdrawn the morning of July 31.

State Department of Health records show that Rehnke was brought before the Florida Board of Medicine in 2007 in a case that involved a blood-vessel bypass graft in both legs of a 76-year-old man in 2005. The man developed an infection in the left leg, which required amputation, and he died two months later, having never left the hospital.

Without admitting any fault, Rehnke accepted a settlement that included a $5,000 fine and 50 hours of community service, records show.

Rehnke has settled at least seven accusations of malpractice since 2001, two of which involved death, according to Office of Insurance Regulation records. One of those was a death from infection following a bypass graft in 2002; the other occurred last year following “lap-band” gastric bypass surgery.

Altogether the payouts totaled almost $900,000. 

--Mary Jo Melone is an independent journalist in Tampa. Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.