On April 22, 2009, Stephen Schmitz, Jr., age 31 father of one, went to the Emergency Room at Little Company of Mary Hospital and Health Care Center in Evergreen Park, Illinois, with complaints of severe back pain and profound weakness in his legs. After spending an hour in the waiting area of the emergency room in tremendous pain, moaning and “making a scene,” he was finally taken to the examining room for triage. Thereafter, the triage nurse began her assessment of Stephen and noted the presence of fever, back pain and neurological deficits – the classic presentation of epidural abscess. However, Stephen’s first ER physician did a quick evaluation and ordered a stat abdominal CT scan to rule out an abdominal aortic aneurism. Stephen had no history of vascular disease and no pulsations in his abdomen.

Neither the triage nurse nor the ER physician ever examined Stephen’s back, where he had a large, infected boil in his mid-spine precisely in the area where an epidural abscess was found at surgery 10 days later.

The hospital’s policies and procedures required that a stat CT scan be done within 15 minutes from the time of an order. However, Stephen did not leave the ER for an abdominal CT for over 90 minutes after the order. When the results of the CT scan came back over three hours after Stephen presented to emergency room, it was negative for abdominal aneurism. Thereafter, Stephen was not seen by another ER physician for another 90 minutes, even though the ER physician was told by multiple nurses that Stephen’s color “looked gray.” The second ER physician finally ordered an MRI of Stephen’s thoracic spine to find out why his paralysis had progressed all the way from his feet to above his waist in the 4.5 hours since he had been in the emergency room.

After the four hour MRI scan where it was noted that Stephen had significant problems with pain and claustrophobia, no physician went from the ER to the MRI scanner to see him or to determine what could be done to expedite the MRI process in light of his progressive paralysis, opting instead to casually order additional doses of Ativan and Morphine at arm’s length. Despite the fact that Epidural Abscess was in the second ER physician’s differential diagnosis, the MRI of Stephen’s thoracic spine was not ready to be read until approximately 11:20 p.m. that evening – almost 4.5 hours after it had been ordered and 9 hours after he arrived.

At that time, the scan was sent to a radiologist, who was on-call at his home. The doctor read the radiology study as virtually normal and advised the ER physician and neurologist, accordingly. Of particular importance, the radiologist’s interpretation indicated “no enhancing abnormality” on Stephen’s thoracic MRI, an interpretation which proved fatal to Stephen’s chances for improvement or recovery from paralysis. At the same time, Stephen’s neurologist also read Stephen’s thoracic MRI as showing “no enhancing abnormality”; it was therefore decided that Stephen had inoperable, irreversible, dysfunction of his spinal cord around the T4-T5 level which was not treatable with back surgery.

The next morning, April 23rd, a second radiologist read the radiology report of Stephen’s thoracic MRI from the preceding day and, in stark contrast to the first, noted there was significant and extensive enhancing abnormality on the MRI between the spinal cord and bony canal at levels T3-T4 and T4-T5. Significantly, the enhancement from the contrast material (gadolinium) used in Stephen’s thoracic MRI indicated areas of inflammation consistent with an epidural abscess or epidural infection, (pus) in the space between the spinal cord and the bony spinal canal. However, the second radiologist did not notify anyone that he read the film contrary to the first reading and he instead simply posted his final read on the hospital computer system.

For seven (7) days it was of assumed that Stephen’s paralysis was the result of something inside his spinal cord – transverse myelitis. On April 30, 2009, Defendants finally called a neurosurgeon to consult on Stephen’s case. The neurosurgeon viewed the MRI of Stephen’s thoracic spine taken April 28, 2009 and immediately ordered a follow-up MRI, which revealed an epidural abscess.

By May 4, 2009, Chicago medical Malpractice lawyer, Stephen was finally operated as he had become significantly septic due to the continuing presence of bacteria in his spine. At that time a large pocket of pus (abscess) was discovered at three (3) levels of his thoracic spine. Unfortunately for Stephen, this surgery came too late and he remained paraplegic.

Stephen Schmitz has complete paraplegia below spinal level t-5 meaning he has neither feeling nor motor function below spinal level t-5. He hasn’t walked since entering Little Company of Mary on April 22, 2009, will never walk again, and will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His spinal cord injury also results in chronic pain and sudden, unpredictable bouts of spasticity in his lower extremities.

A tragic byproduct of Stephen’s complete paraplegia was the amputation, in January 2010, of his right leg due to chronic, non-healing ulcers and osteomyelitis in his right heel. Unfortunately, the lack of both feeling and motor function in Stephen’s extremities placed him at increased risk for ulcers of this nature. Stephen had many surgeries, including debridements and flap procedures, on his right heel. However, neither these procedures nor the use of antibiotics could stop the spread of infection to Stephen’s right heel, necessitating amputation of his right heel bone and, with it, his entire right lower limb pursuant to established surgical technique.

As with his right heel, Stephen’s paraplegia created a risk for development of ulcers on his buttocks and sacral area. He has battled severe infections on his buttocks following his injury that resulted in a draining wound with tunneling and, ultimately, chronic osteomyelitis in his sacral bone. After undergoing multiple debridement surgeries and flap procedures to manage these wounds, Stephen had both his sacral bone and extensive gluteal tissue removed in July 2010.

On the eve of trial, the parties engaged in a two day pre-trial settlement conference before the honorable Edward S. Harmening, who diligently and ably reached a settlement between the Plaintiff and 3 Defendants, including the Little Company of Mary hospital, an emergency room physician and a radiologist. The settlement was split evenly between the Hospital and the insurer for the Doctors.

This settlement will help provide the care, therapy, assistance, and medical equipment that Mr. Schmitz needs through his lifetime. According to his lawyers, Mr. Schmitz wants to be able to participate in his child’s life, return to some outdoor activities and be a more active father.

Also handling the case with Mr. Phillips on behalf of Mr. Schmitz was Terrence M. Quinn and Elise A. Waisbren from Phillips Law Offices.

For more information contact Stephen D. Phillips at 312-550-0005.

Phillips Law Offices
161 N. Clark Street, Suite 4925
Chicago, Illinois 60601

By: Stephen Phillips

Stephen D. Phillips is the managing partner at the Phillips Law Offices in Chicago. He earned his Juris Doctor from Loyola University in 1985 and his B.A. from the University of Iowa in 1981. He is an extensively published writer and sought-after lecturer on legal topics ranging from medical malpractice to tort reform. Mr. Phillips is also the recipient of a number of awards and honors from various legal and community groups.