In a horrific story of inexcusable hospital negligence, The New York Post reported on February 5, 2019, that “A 73-year-old Colorado woman who claimed her healthy kidneys were removed by doctors died eight months following the surgery.” Linda Woolley had undergone surgery “in May 2018 to remove both kidneys after … doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital told her she likely had kidney cancer.”
After the procedure, Ms. Woolley learned her biopsy, taken before the operation, had shown no sign of malignancy. Without kidneys, the elderly woman was forced to “undergo four hours of dialysis three days a week.” She succumbed to cardiac arrest while waiting for a kidney transplant.
Family members believe the mother and grandmother would still be alive but for the botched surgery. Ms. Woolley’s daughter, Jodi Fournier, told reporters, “There’s a few things the kidneys regulate, one of them being potassium.” Ms. Fournier blamed potassium levels at “twice what they should’ve been” for “ultimately caus[ing] the cardiac arrest.”
The American Heart Association names hyperkalemia, a higher than normal potassium level, as a cause of fatal cardiac arrhythmias. Chronic kidney disease is known to cause hyperkalemia. Other possible causes are diabetes, congestive heart failure, and “medications that disrupt potassium balance, such as certain blood pressure lowering drugs.”
Ms. Woolley also suffered during the months prior to death. She told reporters, “I was not real happy. My life was totally changed. Dialysis is no picnic no matter how used to it you get, it robs you of your life.” She also expressed great appreciation for the “wonderful” people who came forward to volunteer as kidney donors after her story broke, suggesting “if they don’t match her O+ requirements, maybe the donation can spark an organ swap with another patient who does meet her type.”
The hospital issued a statement of sympathy at Ms. Woolley’s passing, but declined to offer an explanation, saying “Unfortunately, we are unable to discuss any specific patients because of federal and state laws that protect patients’ privacy.”
This tragedy raises a number of questions about hospital protocols and how doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital could have thought Ms. Woolley had kidney cancer after a negative biopsy. Did the lab send the doctors another patient’s test results? That could have caused some initial confusion, but the hospital should have had redundancies in place to catch such an error. Certainly, doctors would have ordered a second round to rule out errors or a false positive on the first test. After all, they were going to remove both kidneys if there was cancer, making life untenable for Ms. Woolley without a donor.
On the legal side of this case, the doctors have exposed themselves, and the hospital to liability for wrongful death and for personal injury damages for the suffering Ms. Woolley endured from the time of the misdiagnosis to her untimely death. We can only hope the family retains capable legal counsel to hold all parties fully accountable.