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Mastectomy mistake patient: 'I was in shock'

Linda McDougal
Linda McDougal

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(CNN) -- It was the news every woman dreads. Linda McDougal was told she had breast cancer, so she underwent a double mastectomy, and then the news got worse. Doctors admitted it was all a mistake -- she never had cancer, and the surgery was completely unnecessary.

CNN anchor Carol Costello talked with McDougal and her attorney Chris Messerly about the mistake and the consequences, and spoke with Laurel Krause, a doctor at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the surgery was done.

COSTELLO: It's just an unbelievable story. So you decide to have a double mastectomy, which is a huge decision in the first place. When did you find out you did not have cancer?

MCDOUGAL: Forty-eight hours after the surgery.

COSTELLO: And how did doctors tell you?

MCDOUGAL: The surgeon walked into my room and told my husband and I that she had some bad news, and there was no way of telling me other than to tell me, and that is that I didn't have cancer.

COSTELLO: So you're lying in your hospital bed, after just going through this horrible surgery, ... what you were feeling?

MCDOUGAL: Well, initially I thought, "Good, because I hope you got it all." And then she said, "You don't seem to understand -- you never had cancer. There was a mix-up."

COSTELLO: And you and your husband then said ...

MCDOUGAL: I think -- I was rendered speechless. I was in shock. And within moments, we were both crying. It was very difficult.

COSTELLO: And did you ask the hospital how this happened? Why it happened? How long did it take you to get over the initial shock to ask those questions?

MCDOUGAL: It took a couple of minutes before the surgeon continued and told me, initially, that slides got mixed up. And then, the next day she called and said that she had done some more checking and that it was more than that.

COSTELLO: What did the hospital tell you when you contacted the hospital about this mistake, and how it could have happened?

MESSERLY: Well, three separate people, including two physicians, failed to check the names and the numbers of the patients -- Linda McDougal and one other person -- and they switched the names on the slides with the pathology sheets. They told some poor woman that she had no cancer at all and told Linda that she did.

COSTELLO: About the other woman, did she eventually undergo a double mastectomy herself?

MESSERLY: We don't know. We have not been told that by the hospital.

COSTELLO: It's been seven months since this procedure. Why did you wait so long before going public about this?

MCDOUGAL: I have had a lot of issues just dealing with it. It's taken me seven months to get to a point where I can really talk about it. I'm still infected. I can't continue with reconstruction ...

COSTELLO: Because of the surgery, you have infections?

MCDOUGAL: I have had secondary surgery.

COSTELLO: Did doctors come up and say we're sorry? What did they do for you?

MCDOUGAL: The only person who ever apologized was my surgeon. I never heard another word from United [Hospital] or the pathologists other than their reaction to the news stories, as I'm coming out with this.

COSTELLO: But Chris, the hospital did agree to pay for her medical bills and back pay and things like that?

MESSERLY: That's news to us. Linda's contact with the insurance company has not made us aware of that. So, they have not stepped up and taken the complete responsibility for the multiple surgeries and everything she's going to have to go through for the rest of her life.

COSTELLO: So, they haven't paid for the surgery that she didn't need?

MESSERLY: Well, she has had insurance pay for all of that. I mean, she does have some ongoing issues, but she is going to have many more surgeries before she's done, and we don't know what the results of those will be.

COSTELLO: Before I talk to hospital officials -- do you plan to sue?

MESSERLY: Absolutely. However, President Bush intends to add additional harm to Linda and other victims. I mean, 98,000 people per year die of medical malpractice, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that are injured, and the president wants to tell them, I don't care what you've been through, we're going to put a cap on your damages of $250,000.

COSTELLO: And of course, the reason he's doing that is because there are many frivolous lawsuits filed, and doctor's bills are getting ever more expensive.

MESSERLY: But putting a cap on that will do nothing at all to reduce that, and California has proved that. They put a cap on years ago, and malpractice premiums have gone up and up and up until insurance reform came through.

Doctor: Very sorry for 'tragic mistake'

COSTELLO: OK. We want to get a word from hospital officials. ... Thank you for coming in.

We want to turn now to reaction from United Hospital. Dr. Laurel Krauss, a senior pathologist at United Hospital, ... joins us from Minneapolis. Good morning.

KRAUSE: Good morning.

COSTELLO: How could this have happened?

KRAUSE: First, let me say how very sorry I am for this tragic mistake. This happened, as Messerly describes -- his account is essentially accurate. Two patients' sets of slides were on one tray, and two patients' sets of paperwork, and inadvertently, the pathologist involved picked up the wrong paperwork with the slides and failed to validate the name and identification number on the papers with the name and identification number on the slides.

COSTELLO: Are there not safeguards in place to prevent this from happening?

KRAUSE: There are safeguards in place, and we have put additional safeguards in place since the incident. Our practice at that time was national standard. We have now put additional safeguards of color coding the slides and paperwork. We also have only one patient case per tray of slides, and we have a second pathologist completely review all aspects of the case, validating the color code, the name, the identification number, and having to agree with the first pathologist's diagnosis.

COSTELLO: The pathologist that made the mistake, what happened to him or her?

KRAUSE: This pathologist is still on staff. This individual has been practicing 10 years, has had an exemplary record, and has never made a mistake like this before.

COSTELLO: So no punishment, no suspension?

KRAUSE: An independent investigation both by the hospital and again by our own practice disclosed no prior history of any incidents of this kind. Had there been a practiced pattern, disciplinary action would have been undertaken, but in this case, we were appreciative that the physician who was involved was actually the person who identified the error and disclosed it fully.

COSTELLO: Will the hospital pick up Linda's medical bills, pay for her future surgeries?

KRAUSE: We are collaborating with the insurance company, with the hospital, and with the patient and her family in every way possible to ensure that her lost wages and all medical bills will be compensated.

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