ALBANY, N.Y. — A pregnant woman was paralyzed from the neck down when a physician mistakenly injected a cancer drug into her spinal column instead of a vein, hospital officials said Friday.
The 21-year-old woman, who is six months pregnant, was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a malignant tumor in her sinuses Feb. 27 when a staff resident misread the label on a syringe, said Dr. Gregory Harper, the woman's attending physician.
Harper said he could not speculate on how long the woman might live but added: "Our research and phone calls to the company which makes the vincristine have confirmed that the prognosis for this particular complication is very likely to be fatal."
The drug, called vincristine, is intended for intravenous use only. However, the resident mistakenly believed that the syringe was labeled for injection into the spinal column, and he injected it there along with other medications, said Harper, who was not in the hospital at the time.
The mistake was discovered about an hour later when nurses came in to inject the vincristine and could not find the syringe, Harper said. Doctors then tried to flush out the woman's spinal column with a saline solution and used intravenous drugs to try to stop the effects of the vincristine, he said.
"Both residents came back to the hospital in tears" after learning of the error, Harper said. "They're shattered. We were all in tears."
"I think we have to understand here that this is a rare occurrence," Dr. Michael Vanko, president and director of Albany Medical Center Hospital, said at a news conference. "It has never occurred here before. It was not a judgmental error. It was an unfortunate error."
In a similar case, Bob East, a retired photographer for the Miami Herald, was pronounced brain dead Tuesday, four days after doctors at Jackson Memorial Medical Center in Miami accidentally injected him with a toxic chemical preservative during surgery to remove a cancerous eye. He died Wednesday after his family asked that his life-support system be disconnected.
The Albany-area woman, who Vanko said will not be identified, must use a respirator to breathe, and her paralysis is irreversible.
Harper said the patient, who is not comatose, was told of her condition. Her unborn child was not affected and is maintaining a stable heart rate, said Dr. John Goldkrand, head of the hospital's division of maternal fetal medicine.
The state Health Department is investigating the incident.