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Family wins $14M medical malpractice verdict over son’s botched surgery

A federal judge awarded $14.2 million to the parents of a young boy who suffered severe and permanent brain damage when a surgery to address his persistent ear infections went wrong in 2016.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang found that the U.S. government was liable for medical negligence by the doctors who treated the child at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The boy, now 6, is identified in court records as Z.R. According to Chuang’s opinion, filed last week, Z.R. went into cardiac arrest for 11 minutes during the surgery, which was intended to place ear tubes that would relieve his ear infections and to remove his adenoid glands to address breathing issues.

“It is beyond dispute that as a result of the cardiac arrest, Z.R. now suffers from a permanent global neurological impairment giving host to a rise of disabilities,” Chuang wrote. “Although he is still capable of responding to visual and auditory input, Z.R. is now largely nonverbal, immobile, and confined to a wheelchair or his bed.” 

Z.R. had other health issues that made the surgery risky, Chuang wrote in the opinion, including sickle cell disease and asthma.

The anesthesiologist who handled the surgery, Dr. ​​Christine Gerbstadt, raised serious concerns about the risks to Z.R. and even tried to convince other doctors that the surgery should be delayed. But the primary surgeon on the case, Dr. Scott Brietzke, pushed to move forward with the procedure, according to the opinion.

During the surgery, Z.R.’s blood pressure dropped and his heart rate rose to dangerous levels, Chuang wrote. The child also struggled to breathe throughout the procedure, which lasted significantly longer than it was supposed to. 

Brietzke observed while a resident conducted the surgery and did not take over when the procedure began to take too long or when Z.R. showed signs of distress, according to the opinion.

Gerbstadt administered medications to control Z.R.’s breathing and blood pressure, but did so at the wrong times and in the wrong amounts, Chuang concluded. The judge found that Gerbstadt and Brietzke violated the standards of care and that Z.R.’s parents showed that the breaches caused Z.R.’s injuries.

Z.R.’s parents, TimMeka Harris-Reese and Douglas Reese, Jr., filed suit in 2019, alleging that the doctors were negligent and failed to properly inform the family of the risks of surgery. Chuang ruled in favor of the parents on the negligence claim but in favor of the government on the informed consent claim.

After an 11-day bench trial, the judge awarded the family more than $14 million, including $11 million in future medical expenses. Chuang noted in the opinion that Z.R. requires 24-hour nursing care and a ventilator, feeding pump, wheelchair, mechanical lift and specialized bed.

Z.R.’s life expectancy now is 21 years old, Chuang wrote. His mother provides many hours of care per week and has been unable to take a full-time job or finish her college degree as a result.

Z.R.’s father, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, plans to leave the military in order to help care for Z.R. and will lose access to his government health insurance, Chuang wrote.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, which represented the government in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Robert R. Michael, one of the lawyers for the parents, said Z.R.’s mother was “emotionally overwhelmed and unable to speak for several minutes” when he called her to report the verdict.

“When she was finally able to speak she thanked God that her child finally received justice and she would now be able to take care of her child in the manner (he) needs,” Michael said. “She has for over five years had difficulty with reliable nursing coverage provided by the government and will now have the resources to directly hire the needed full-time 24-hour nursing care that her son needs.”