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Forensic Files

  Forensic Files

Many years ago, I became immersed in the forensic side of toxicology. I traveled around the country, testifying in both civil and criminal cases. I participated in only two malpractice cases, and both physicians were found innocent of wrong doing. One of those cases involved a family physician who evaluated and treated a woman who had sustained a copperhead bite to her right leg in the mid-calf region. He had told the patient that his prayers to God would be answered and she would be healed.  To make a long story short, his prayers were not answered and the woman's leg was amputated just below her right knee. If she would have received the appropriate standard of care for the copperhead bite, she would be walking around today on two feet.

The other malpractice case was related to an orthopedic surgeon who had performed an elective surgery on a sixteen year-old girl. The surgeon did not stop the woman's birth control pills before surgery. After surgery, she called the surgeon's office complaining of shortness of breath. The office personnel told the young woman to relax and phoned in some pain pills. The young girl was found dead in her bed the next morning by her mother; she had suffered a large blood clot to her lungs.

There was a block box warning label on the girl's birth control pills stating that her pills were extremely powerful at causing blood clots after surgery. She should have been taken off the pills for at least one month before the procedure was performed. What made the case even more disturbing was that the girl's knee was absolutely anatomically normal. She did not need surgery of any kind. The surgeon could not find the reason for this young athletic girl's knee pain while running bases in softball. All MRI scans were negative for cartilage or bone abnormalities. His post operative note stated she had a normal knee. No actual surgery was performed.

She lost her life because of a careless physician who testified that he did not read the labels of medications, certainly not birth control pills. The jury found him innocent of malpractice because every single orthopedic surgeon who testified on his behalf stated they too did not read medication labels and operated on girls taking birth control pills all the time. None of those surgeons had ever witnessed a patient die of a blood clot. Although a standard of care was followed, it was wrong. The jury found it acceptable for the surgeons to make up their own rules. I doubt any of those jurors went to any of those surgeons ever.

One criminal case stands out amongst the rest: The Phil Rouss Case. This case involved a man who was poisoned by his business partner. Phil lived despite suffering severe neurotoxic effects from chronic mercury, lead and arsenic poisoning. The perpetrator, Steven White was sentenced to 31 years in prison. Mr. White died in prison. Phil died of lung cancer after Mr. White started serving his jail time. The television show Forensic Files did a documentary on the case and I was part of the show. Whenever that show airs on television, our office gets phone calls from people who believe they are poisoned. These calls come from areas all over the United States. Most of these people are usually desperate, and some may actually be poisoned, but no one believes them.

One local case that came to me as a result of Forensic Files was a patient who is still under my care. She initially believed her boyfriend had been piping toxic gas into her house to kill her. She did not know what to do, so she came to have an evaluation. The woman was in her mid forties at the time, never married and a successful psychologist. After she had gotten her Ph.D., she dedicated her practice to Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. Using almost any measure, she appeared to be normal, engaging and intelligent. She was convinced that her boyfriend was poisoning her even though he spent most of his time in her house with her. In order to help answer her questions, I asked a local industrial hygienist to evaluate her home. And he did. The results: negative. The patient became more convinced she was poisoned, and she now believed that the industrial hygienist knew her boyfriend and he was protecting him by giving me false negative results. Ultimately, she ended up being evaluated and committed to a psychiatric facility in town. She was very intelligent as well as very delusional. She went through a schizophrenic break.

Over the years, I have cared for her. I have watched a vibrant, intelligent, successful professional woman degenerate into someone who, on a good day, has clarity of thought. On a typical day, believes she has been bitten by sand flies, or brown recluse spiders or she has identified another person who is trying to poison her. On a bad day, she drives around town looking for our clinic so she can get an evaluation for some emergency problem that has emerged within the last twenty-four hours. Her octogenarian parents try their best to care for her, but they both are wrestling with their own health problems. Bottom line: she's never been poisoned. She's probably never been really normal and never will be.

I stopped doing forensic cases several years back after my wife died. I refunded retainer fees to clients, apologized for my decisions to pull myself out of their cases and I tried to find other forensic toxicologists to help them with their cases. I have done two cases since and the time involved in each were great. Our office had a lull in new patient visits so I could squeeze out the time during regular work hours to dedicate myself to finding the truth, and nothing but the truth.

I don't think I'll ever go back to taking on forensic cases. But I'll never know when the next big case comes in, like Phil Rouss's case or the Glue Girls from Mississippi. But if one does, I'll have to make time to help out the victims because it's the right thing to do.

And it's never too late to do the right thing, ever!

 Doc    

Posted by Amanda Sanders at 11:43 AM
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