In July 1998, Sadie Cole, a healthy mother of three children, went into Norwalk Hospital for what seemed like a routine procedure to have her tubes tied.

She ended up in a coma for 13 years.

Her husband, Herman Cole, couldn’t understand what went wrong. And he wasn’t getting any answers from doctors.

“For three months straight, I asked what happened to my wife,” Herman Cole, of Shelton, recently told the Law Tribune. “[The hospital] never gave me the answer.”

Finally, a nurse discreetly approached Cole and told him, “something happened very wrong to your wife and you need to find yourself an attorney.”

“Come to find out [the nurse] was absolutely right about that,” said Cole. “They were covering it up.”

Cole hired Richard Silver, of Stamford’s Silver Golub & Teitell, and slowly Cole got answers. It turned out an error by the anesthesiologist – he over-sedated Cole’s wife — caused her coma and eventual death.

Since then, Cole has devoted his life to advocating that doctors be held liable for malpractice. He’s focused especially on speaking out against efforts by the medical community and insurers to limit damages in malpractice cases. Those who want to cap damages say that high insurance premiums and the risk of being sued are driving some doctors out of business and leading to skyrocketing medical costs as physicians practice defensive medicine.

For his efforts, Cole was honored in July with the Medal of Justice Award at New York Law School’s Center for Justice & Democracy. “The CJ&D Medal of Justice recognizes the inspirational struggles of those who have been harmed through no fault of their own, and who turned their misfortune into something positive,” the organization stated. “By successfully challenging wrongdoers in court, they stood up for justice and as a result, made the world a better place.”

“I was surprised but grateful, very grateful,” Cole said about receiving the award. “I’ve actually talked to Congress in Washington, D.C. on behalf of patients’ rights. I’ve twice done that and I’ve actually marched at the Capitol in Hartford to represent patients.”

Brain Damage

The deeper Cole goes into his personal story, the more tragic it gets.

During the procedure, after receiving too much anesthesia from Dr. Jay Angeluzzi, Sadie Cole’s blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels. According to Angeluzzi’s own testimony in the eventual malpractice lawsuit, he had turned off all the audible alarms and then removed the monitors altogether, even though Sadie was unresponsive.

By the time medical staff realized she wasn’t breathing, Sadie Cole had already suffered irreversible brain damage. She slipped into a coma and never recovered from her vegetative state. Herman Cole visited his wife most every day at her nursing home until she passed away in 2011.

Cole said before he even understood what had happened, a Norwalk Hospital case worker kept asking him where he planned to take his wife for prolonged care because she couldn’t stay at the hospital. “They were trying to push her out of the hospital,” said Cole.

Through the help of attorney Silver, whom Cole described as godsend, Cole discovered that the anesthesiologist had a drug problem. His file said it was cocaine and he had sought treatment at a rehab facility. But it was later discovered that the doctor was high during Sadie Cole’s procedure on the very medication he was giving the patient.

Cole fought to have Angeluzzi’s license revoked, but was unsuccessful. He had better luck in his civil claim against the doctor. With Silver representing him, Cole settled his lawsuit for more than $13 million in 2004. “This money allowed her to be in an excellent facility so Herman and [Sadie's] family could visit with her. She had the greatest care,” said Silver.

‘With Conviction’

Cole’s tale doesn’t end there. In 2003, while at Norwalk Hospital, he bumped into family friends. He assumed their mother was ill. That was not the case. The mother had come to the hospital for a Cesarean section. “I’ve known her since she was a little baby,” Cole said of the woman, Mia House. The baby was born healthy, but House never awakened from the anesthesia. She, too, was in a coma, for nine years, before dying.

“I had a feeling it was the same anesthesiologist, said Cole. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

This time, Angeluzzi lost his license but Cole is furious another life was cut short by the doctor’s negligence. So now, Cole is willing to tell anyone his story. He was also willing to march in Hartford the very same day that doctors lobbied lawmakers in favor of a cap on malpractice damages and contingency fees for plaintiffs lawyers. “[Doctors] were there in full force,” said Cole, who works for the state Department of Disability Services in Connecticut. “But we were able to stop them from putting a cap on economic damages.”

Silver says that Cole works on a personal level as well. “He’s always extremely diligent, very dedicated, very helpful to other families who had other devastating injuries as a result of medical negligence,” said Silver.

The debate over malpractice damage awards is far from over. But one thing is clear: Cole is not about to back down. “She was my wife, and if I don’t look out for her and the wrongdoing that happened to her, the story would never be told.”•