Medical providers have a duty of care to thoroughly and completely investigate health complaints. When practitioners fail to address patient complaints, the consequences can be devastating. The worst outcome for any failure in care is generally considered to be the death of a patient. Unfortunately for some patients, living with the effects of serious medical mistakes can be a fate worse than death.
Malpractice cases can be straightforward, but more often a complex chain of events resulted in a series of failures. In these complex cases, documentation is key to understanding just how things went wrong for a patient. Things get much more difficult when more than one healthcare provider is involved in a case.
In the case of Nicole Kowalski, her first complaint of a toothache was just the beginning of a two-year saga involving multiple referrals, constant pain and a series of unsatisfactory answers. Her story, published on Health.com, is nothing short of staggering. It began in June of 2017, when Kowalski went to her dentist complaining of tooth pain in the back right side of her mouth.
Kowalski’s dentist took X-rays and told her that the pain was nothing to worry about, effectively dismissing her complaint. This was the first in a long line of mistakes, made worse by the simple fact that it’s an example of a well-known women’s health issue.
This initial medical mistake meant it would take another two years before Kowalski found out what was actually going on. Six months after her initial complaint and following another set of X-rays, her dentist noticed significant bone loss and referred her to an oral surgeon. The oral surgeon decided to extract the tooth that appeared to be causing Kowalski’s pain and sent a biopsy of the extraction to another hospital.
The biopsy results showed evidence of desmoplastic fibroma, a benign bone tumor that is exceedingly rare. The symptoms and presentation all fit with the diagnosis, but Kowalski faced a new challenge: this type of oral surgery is so rare that she couldn’t find a medical provider who would perform it. The oral surgeon referred Kowalski to a clinic, where she saw multiple doctors but found no help.
Eventually, answers came from an unexpected source: Kowalski’s mother worked for a doctor whose brother was an ear, nose and throat specialist at a major hospital. This friend-of-a-friend network got her to a head and neck surgeon, who finally explained what needed to happen. Kowalski said, “He informed me that in order to remove the tumor, he would have to take out four teeth and part of my soft palate. I’d also have to wear a set of prosthetic teeth called an obturator, which had a wire in front, for the rest of my life.”
While this certainly wasn’t welcome news, Kowalski finally had an answer for the first time in over a year. The surgery was performed in March 2018 and reportedly went well. Two weeks after her invasive oral surgery, Kowalski received unexpected news that changed her life forever. The head and neck surgeon told her there had been a “discrepancy” in the biopsy. The diagnosis of desmoplastic fibroma was a mistake. The original biopsy had not dissected enough tissue and failed to find what the invasive surgery discovered: Kowalski had salivary gland cancer.
With a new, more serious diagnosis and a family history of cancer, Kowalski now faced an entirely new set of challenges. Still living with incessant pain, she began radiation therapy. The pain prompted a request for a new obturator. After it was fitted, Kowalski’s teeth began to shift significantly, prompting her doctors to suspect bone loss and radical surgery. After having a large portion of her mouth surgically removed, Kowalski endured another round of radiation therapy.
What are the effects of this missed cancer diagnosis?
Thankfully, Kowalski is alive today and cancer-free as of this writing. Her survival is a direct result of the drastic measures taken to prevent the further spread of a dangerous cancer – steps that may not have been necessary had her doctors been more thorough. Kowalski is a survivor, but her quality of life has changed significantly since 2017.
Aside from having to wear the painful obturator for the rest of her life, the removal of her soft and hard palate has made speech difficult and affected her hearing. It also affected her ability to swallow, and her loss of bone and teeth makes it difficult to eat. She suffers persistent numbness in her face, and her septum is deviated, making is difficult to breathe. This leads to extreme fatigue, making it impossible to work.
On top of all this, Kowalski has suffered from facial disfigurement as a result of the bones loss:
When I look at my old pictures and look at my face now, I notice the right side has drooped a little bit, my top lip is not the same, and my nose has kind of caved into the right side of my face. it’s not extreme but it’s different, and it’s definitely affected my self-confidence. I still struggle and it’s a really hard element to accept.
Had Kowalski’s dentist taken her initial complaint more seriously, things could have turned out very differently for the 27-year-old. Kowalski told Health.com, “If the first extraction biopsy was done differently, a lot of my trauma could have been avoided.” She will live with these challenges for the rest of her life.
Kowalski was the victim of multiple medical mistakes. These failures by her care team resulted in monumental medical bills, short and long-term pain and suffering, loss of consortium, psychological stress, an inability to work and a lifetime of continuing care and therapy as a result of the extreme treatments she endured. Any and all of these are considered damages that she incurred as a victim of medical malpractice, and are damages that you or a loved one could be entitled to as well.
Can you reduce the risk of medical errors?
When it comes to your health and preventing medical mistakes, remember that you and your loved ones are your best advocates. Asking questions and knowing your rights are important, but the most important thing of all is that you are satisfied with your healthcare providers’ answers and comfortable with your care plan. If you feel ignored, dismissed, or otherwise unheard, get a second opinion.
At Bailey & Greer, PLLC, our Memphis medical malpractice lawyers have been fighting for accident and injury victims in West Tennessee or nearly 35 years. Our experienced team handles even the most complex cases and leaves no stone unturned when doctors and hospitals fail you or your loved ones. To learn more about our team and whether you have a medical malpractice case, call our Memphis and Jackson offices at 901-475-7434 or use our contact form.
As founder of Bailey & Greer, R. Sadler Bailey has battled his fair share of insurance giants and wrongdoers and has achieved numerous multimillion-dollar results for the victims of catastrophic injuries and their families. What’s more, he has been involved in more than 40 appellate court decisions affecting Tennessee personal injury law, including many landmark appearances before the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Read more about R. Sadler Bailey