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Parents Sue Over Bleeding Death After Tonsillectomy

October 14, 1989|PATRICIA KLEIN LERNER | PATRICIA KLEIN LERNER, TIMES STAFF WRITER

A North Hollywood couple whose 5-year-old son bled to death after having his tonsils removed in August filed a lawsuit Friday against two San Fernando Valley doctors and the North Hollywood hospital where the surgery was performed.

The suit, filed in Burbank Superior Court, alleges negligence and infliction of emotional distress and seeks $1 million in general damages on behalf of Leticia and Dean Segal, whose son, Dean Jr., died Aug. 4, the day after surgery.

Named in the suit are AMI-North Hollywood Medical Center, Dr. Sheldon Lipshutz, the Encino surgeon who performed the tonsillectomy, and Dr. Americo Riccitelli, a North Hollywood general practitioner who referred the child for surgery.

Both doctors are on staff at the North Hollywood hospital, which is owned by Beverly Hills-based American Medical International.

"This is a surgery that should never have been done," said Bruce G. Fagel, a former emergency room doctor turned lawyer who filed the lawsuit for the Segals. "This was a normal healthy child the day before and the day after, he bleeds to death in front of everybody."

The 12-page complaint also alleges that the two doctors and the hospital lost or destroyed medical records that could have been used as evidence against them in a trial.

A woman in Lipshutz's office said he was out of town and could not be reached for comment, and Riccitelli did not return a reporter's phone call.

Michael Weinstein, president of Medical Center of North Hollywood, where both doctors are on staff, said Segal's death is the subject of a peer review, which is standard procedure in all hospital deaths.

"I think the hospital acted according to hospital protocols and procedures and did everything appropriately," he said.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office listed the cause of Segal's death as accidental, from post-operative hemorrhaging, said Scott Carrier, a coroner's spokesman.

It is highly uncommon for a child to die from a tonsillectomy, said one ear, nose and throat specialist at Childrens Hospital who declined to be named.

The Segal child "had a cold but had no prior history of respiratory problems," Fagel said. In addition, he said, it is extremely dangerous to operate on acutely infected tonsils because a rich network of blood vessels in the inflamed throat increase the risk of hemorrhaging.

"They operated on this kid for the wrong reason at the wrong time," Fagel said.

According to the complaint, Leticia Segal took her son to Riccitelli on Aug. 2 for treatment of a sore throat and fever. The doctor said a tonsillectomy was necessary and scheduled the child for surgery early the next day, the suit alleges.

About four hours after the surgery was completed, Dean Jr. began vomiting blood, the suit alleges. Lipshutz examined the boy's throat, ordered a transfusion of a half unit of blood and admitted the boy to a pediatric unit for observation, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit contends that Lipshutz ignored or disregarded blood tests showing that the boy had lost half his blood volume since the surgery and needed at least two units of blood.

Two hours later, while his mother held him, the child vomited almost a full unit of blood and went into cardiac arrest, but nurses at the hospital delayed 10 to 15 minutes before getting emergency assistance, the lawsuit said. By the time Lipshutz returned and cauterized the boy's bleeding artery, the child had lapsed into a coma, the suit said.

"This was a true critical emergency, and they just ignored it," Fagel said. "They should have taken him right back to the operating room, given him three or four units of blood and re-operated on him."

The boy was transferred to UCLA Medical Center where he was pronounced dead the next day, Fagel said.

Fagel said recovery of the full amount sought in the suit may be difficult since the Legislature has limited the amount of recovery to $250,000 in medical malpractice cases.

At the time of the boy's death, his father was employed at the hospital as a maintenance technician. He has since quit the job and found work elsewhere because it was too psychologically traumatic to work there, Fagel said.

Tonsillitis is an acute and chronic infection of the tonsils, two almond-shaped masses of lymphoid tissue on either side of the throat at the back of the mouth.

Normally small, tonsils swell when infected, obstructing the throat and causing symptoms such as fever, difficulty swallowing and a sore throat.

Fagel said the practice of removing tonsils to cure routine respiratory ills has been discredited for nearly two decades.

The American Academy of Pediatrics considers tonsillitis to be treatable with antibiotics and advocates a tonsillectomy only for severe, recurrent infections that are causing breathing problems.

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