Woman's Botched Lab
Report Proves Disasterous
By Virginia Young
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Scripps Howard News Service.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. ( -- When Ann Weiss had a Pap smear as part of a routine physical exam in 1991, her doctor promised to call if lab results showed any abnormalities.
The doctor did not call, so Weiss assumed everything was fine. She found out otherwise when she had her next exam about four years later, as she and her husband began to contemplate having children.
Weiss, who will turn 37 next week, learned she had mid-stage cancer of the cervix. Extensive chemotherapy and radiation sent the cancer into remission, but the treatments left Weiss sterile. Her medical file showed that she should have known about the condition much earlier.
The 1991 test had detected either a cancerous or pre-cancerous condition, which was easily treatable and completely curable. The report somehow had escaped the attention of her doctor, Chinda Rojanasathit.
Weiss, who lives in St. Ann, Mo., sued the doctor in 1996, but a judge tossed out the case. Missouri law requires that medical malpractice suits against doctors be filed within two years of "the act of negligence." Since Weiss didn't know her doctor was negligent until nearly four years after the exam, she couldn't have met that deadline.
"It's not right," Weiss said this week. The doctor "should take some responsibility."
The case, which is on appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, has become a rallying point for women's groups and cancer support groups. In addition to changing the statute of limitations for such suits, they want to raise the medical community's awareness about the devastating results of a misplaced lab report.
"With cervical cancer, you can go for two to three years without symptoms," says Mary Bruntrager, president of the Women Lawyers Association of Greater St. Louis. If there has been a misdiagnosis, "there's no way to second-guess your doctor."
Even a judge who ruled against Weiss called the results unfair. Judge Mary K. Hoff of the Court of Appeals in St. Louis urged the Missouri Legislature to change the law that limits such suits.
"It was the doctor's failure to communicate the abnormal results to patient which made it impossible for her to seek timely treatment or to pursue a cause of action," Hoff wrote.
Rojanasathit's attorney, J. Thaddeus Eckenrode, blames a mix-up in office procedures for the doctor's failure to notify Weiss of her lab report.
"Apparently the office personnel put it in the file," Eckenrode told the Supreme Court during oral arguments Tuesday. Rojanasathit "never saw it."
Eckenrode concluded that the doctor's "act of negligence occurred when the report came to the office and the doctor did not call" Weiss. Since the report arrived in April 1991, that would mean that Weiss' chance to sue expired in 1993.
"The statute of limitations is harsh," Eckenrode said. "In this case, there's a harsh result."
Weiss' attorney, Matthew Padberg, contends that the statute of limitations did not start running until the undiagnosed abnormality advanced to a cancerous condition. He contends that happened in March 1994, two years before she filed suit.
Padberg called the case a tragedy. "This is a case that cries out for remedy," he told the high court.
Several of the judges indicated that any remedy was up to legislators.
"They meet every year," Judge Edward "Chip" Robertson told Padberg. "They're over there right now."
A bill addressing Weiss' situation has been introduced in the Legislature but is given little chance of passage this year.
Rep. Brian May, D-St. Louis, sponsors the bill. In cases where doctors failed to diagnose a problem, suits could be brought within two years of the date the patient discovered the negligence. May acknowledged that the bill has little chance of passing this year.
Weiss said she has tests every three months, to see if her cancer has returned. "Every three months, you hold your breath, but so far, so good," she said.
Women need to take their health care into their own hands, she says.
"I tell every woman I meet -- make sure you call and get a copy of that test result. Don't rely on doctors."

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