$13.5 awarded in hospital death

Jury Awards $13.5 Million to Family of Woman Who Dies from Infection While Undergoing Cancer Treatment at Dana Farber

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff
Boston Globe, November 6, 2008

The family of a 40-year-old Hopkinton woman who died following a cycle of experimental chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was awarded a total of $13.5 million yesterday by a Suffolk Superior Court jury, according to the family’s attorney.

The jury deliberated for nine hours over two days before awarding $9.4 million plus interest in the July 2003 death of Amy Altman, the mother of two young daughters.

The jurors decided that Altman’s death could have been prevented if Dana-Farber doctors had investigated the cause of chronic diarrhea that surfaced during an unusual treatment protocol for a tumor behind her knee, said Robert Higgins, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

Altman developed the diarrhea about two months after she began receiving chemotherapy every two weeks instead of the standard regimen of once every three weeks for Ewing’s sarcoma, Higgins said. That form of cancer affects bone and soft tissue and usually afflicts adolescents and children between the ages of 10 and 20.

Higgins said Altman agreed to the quickened treatment suggested by Dana-Farber oncologists, who he said had never tried the protocol on an adult. Altman is the only adult in the country believed to have died from the experimental regimen, Higgins said.

"She knew there were side effects, but what she did not know is that they could be really bad and dangerous when you're compromised from chemotherapy," Higgins said. "She had complete and total faith in the Dana-Farber and the doctors there. "

However, Higgins said, Altman’s complaints about the diarrhea were dismissed as an expected side effect in separate consultations with two Dana-Farber oncologists, Dr. Suzanne George and Dr. Jeffrey Morgan.

Altman soon began suffering extreme abdominal pain and could not urinate, Higgins said. She died less than two days after being admitted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital for a massive infection by a flesh-eating bacteria that apparently had caused the diarrhea, Higgins said.

"Instead of making sure it wasn't a problem, they wrote it off as not a big deal," Higgins said. "In fact, it was a very big deal. "

The autopsy found that the cancer had been cured, Higgins said.

Dana-Farber officials declined to discuss specifics of the case.

"We deeply regret what happened in this case and sympathize with the patient’s family and friends," the institute said in a statement. "Cancer is a terrible disease that still claims far too many lives. Nevertheless, we strongly disagree with this verdict and firmly believe that the physicians involved provided a high standard of care. "

Higgins said that Altman’s husband, an FBI agent attached to the Boston office, was satisfied that the death had been found to be preventable.

"He was pleased that the jury listened to all the evidence and that they found what had happened to his wife shouldn't have happened," Higgins said.

The lawyer for the physicians, who were both named as defendants, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Dana-Farber was not included as a defendant, said Higgins, a medical malpractice lawyer at Lubin & Meyer of Boston.

Dana-Farber never made a settlement offer and did not issue an apology, Higgins added.

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