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Judge Clears Doctor in Patient's Bacteria Death

Court: Lawsuit was brought by widow of Oak Park man. Necrotizing fasciitis was apparently masked by lupus.

September 11, 1997|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIMI VALLEY — An emergency room doctor was cleared of any medical wrongdoing Wednesday in the death of an Oak Park man who was killed by the so-called flesh-eating bacteria more than two years ago.

In a civil lawsuit, a Superior Court judge sided with physician Barry Pollack, who was the first doctor to treat Charles S. Thrower, 39, when he arrived at the Westlake Medical Center emergency room. On the night of March 6, 1995, Thrower complained of a high fever, aches, a swollen knee, nausea and chills.

He was initially admitted and treated for a flare-up of lupus--a chronic disease that had afflicted him for a dozen years--instead of the quick-acting strep infection called necrotizing fasciitis.

In the opinion of Judge Joe Hadden, the lupus symptoms closely mimicked--and tragically masked--the strange ailment that killed Thrower at Los Robles Regional Medical Center three days later.

The flesh-eating bacteria wasn't discovered until March 7.

After hugging his wife and lawyer outside the Simi Valley courtroom, Pollack said he felt vindicated by the decision.

"I'm very relieved," said Pollack, a Westlake resident who now works in the emergency room at Simi Valley Hospital.

"The insurance company, in the early stages of the case, said, 'Just put it aside. It's cheaper to put out a settlement than to defend yourself,' " he said. "That's the sad thing about medical malpractice today."

Widow Cheryl Thrower--who rushed her husband to the hospital when he was too debilitated to walk or drive--said the decision shocked her. But she does not plan to appeal.

"I think now [Pollack] will start looking closer at what he's doing," Thrower said.

"I'm trying to take things one step at a time," said the widow, who is now raising the couple's children--Morgan, 13, and Christopher, 9--alone. "I'm trying to take care of my family."

Hadden's decision ended a $1.25-million civil suit Cheryl Thrower filed against the former Westlake Medical Center and seven doctors, claiming wrongful death and medical negligence. The medical center--last called the SHC Specialty Hospital--has been reacquired by giant Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.

Previously, the medical center and two doctors settled out of court. Terms of that settlement are confidential. Four other doctors challenged the suit on legal grounds, and claims against them were dismissed.

During the trial, plaintiff's attorney Sandra Tyson had argued that Pollack overlooked some telltale symptoms, which could have indicated that Thrower was suffering from a virulent infection, not a lupus flare-up. Had the late health-care administrator quickly received a massive dose of antibiotics, he had a 90% chance of survival, she said.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney C. Snyder Patin said symptoms pointed to lupus. So his client addressed those symptoms and kept Thrower at the hospital rather than releasing him. Thrower was turned over to an internist with more specialized expertise in just over two hours.

"I have always been convinced of the fact that Dr. Pollack had performed within the applicable standard of care," Patin said. "He had performed above the standard of care."

Hearing the case without a jury, Hadden issued his decision after Tyson made her closing arguments, but before Patin delivered his.

"This trial is truly a reenactment of a tragedy," Hadden said, adding that testimony from and the presence of Thrower's wife and children broke his heart.

"It was sometimes difficult to take notes," he said, looking at Cheryl Thrower. "I wanted to cry. I wanted to give each of you a hug."

But hugging is not a judge's job, he said. Listening to the evidence is.

"This is an agonizing case," he said. "[But] in my best judgment, Dr. Pollack's conduct did not fall below standards set forth in the law for an emergency room physician in the two hours and five minutes [Charles Thrower] was in his care."

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