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After an eight-day trial, a Chicago jury has awarded $6.5 million to the family of a woman who went into a hospital for a routine procedure and died after she was infected with “flesh-eating” bacteria. Gloria Lynne Christopher, 49, of Miami, died of the infection at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, a teaching hospital that is part of Northwestern University, after she underwent a tubal ligation in 1998. The award for medical malpractice and wrongful death was handed down last week in Cook County Circuit Court, Law Division, before Judge Susan Zwick. Christopher Estate v. Nanette Rumsey, No. 99L-2579. The attorney for the plaintiff, Terrence Lavin of Chicago’s Lavin & Nisivaco, said that doctors punctured Christopher’s bladder during surgery and failed to diagnose the “necrotizing fasciitis” infection that developed and ate away muscle and skin tissue. Efforts to cut out the infection resulted in extensive further surgery. The result was “one of the most horrifying deaths you can imagine,” Lavin asserted. But David Slawkowski of Chicago’s Anderson, Bennett & Partners, the defense attorney, said there was no allegation of negligence in the surgery. After Christopher’s initial surgery, he said, she developed sepsis — a bodywide systemic response to infection, which he called “a known but rare complication of surgery,” which somehow progressed to the fasciitis infection. Slawkowski said none of the doctors nor any of the four expert witnesses called in the trial could explain how Christopher developed the infection. Lavin claimed the defendants “showed no medical vision” and cited a four-day delay in making the diagnosis of fasciitis, which was actually made by another surgeon — not the defendants, Dr. Nanette Rumsey or Dr. Julie Barton. In fact, he said, he felt the key to his case was when the jury heard Rumsey testify that she had diagnosed the problem and called in a specialist. “We proved she didn’t examine the patient when she said she had, and didn’t make the diagnosis,” Lavin asserted. “She was taking credit for someone else’s good work.” Christopher, an ad executive, had moved to Miami from Chicago in 1997 but came back for the tubal ligation at Northwestern. The hospital settled out of court last year for $350,000, Lavin said. The $6.5 million jury award breaks down as $500,000 for pain and suffering, $1 million for disability, $1 million for disfigurement and $4 million for loss of society. Slawkowski said he is considering an appeal of the award. Neither attorney nor any of the four expert witnesses who testified could explain definitively how Christopher’s infection became the rare “flesh-eating” type. Lavin speculated that the infection may have been spread via tainted instruments or one of the doctors. Either way, he said, when Christopher’s bladder was punctured, urine carried bacteria into her abdomen and soft tissue. Doctors then had to cut away “much of her lower abdomen and her external genitalia to try to stop the tissue death,” Lavin said. Slawkowski said certain people — such as older persons and those with systemwide diseases such as diabetes — are more likely to develop necrotizing fasciitis. He added that fasciitis may also be caused by a combination of bacteria. Slawkowski described Rumsey and Barton as “two very well-trained and qualified doctors at a top teaching hospital.” But he believed the key to their losing the case was when the 12-member jury saw an autopsy photo. The doctors “had to do a lot of cutting,” he explained.

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