Doctor's widow sues over diagnosis

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Throat cancer first termed inflammation

by Chris Gardner
Waterbury Republican-American

November 13, 2008

The widow of a doctor from Southbury has sued the hospital where he practiced, claiming its top pathologist misdiagnosed his fatal throat cancer in 1999.

Lawyers for Dr. Stanley "Shep" Saperstein, who died last year at age 64, and his widow, Eleanor, claim Saperstein was improperly diagnosed by a colleague at Danbury Hospital with noncancerous throat inflammation, which developed into fatal esophageal cancer. Saperstein, a nephrologist and former assistant clinical professor of medicine at Yale University, had practicing privileges at Danbury Hospital for 35 years and was former chief of the hospital's chronic dialysis unit.

The hospital and co-defendant Dr. Beatriz Cuello deny liability because they say the statute of limitations for the Sapersteins to file suit passed in 2002. They have filed a motion to dismiss. Oral arguments will be heard Dec. 8 at Waterbury Superior Court, where the lawsuit is on the complex litigation docket.

A lawyer for the hospital and Cuello did not return a telephone call for comment. Andrea Rynn, hospital spokesman, said the hospital would have no comment on the case.

"Most importantly, we sympathize with the Saperstein family on the passing of our great friend and respected colleague, Stanley Saperstein," Rynn said. "Regarding the noted suit, allegations are just allegations and can only be decided through due legal process, not in the court of public opinion."

The suit alleges Cuello failed to find precancerous growths on slides of tissue samples taken from Saperstein's throat in August 1999. Cuello typically reviewed 60 to 80 cases daily, assisted by a resident, or doctor in training, according to documents filed last week in court. Only the resident's handwritten initials appear on Saperstein's pathology report.

The suit alleges it was Cuello's responsibility to make sure the resident properly analyzed her cases. Saperstein's lawyer doesn't think Cuello looked at the slides.

Saperstein developed difficulty swallowing in 2005, and a new tissue sample taken from his esophagus revealed cancer, which could only have developed over a lengthy period of time, according to the suit. Dr. Frank Braza, vice chairman of the hospital's pathology department, gave Saperstein the diagnosis. Braza is not a defendant in the suit.

According to court documents, Braza told Saperstein, "We blew it. I've got to tell you, there was cancer (when the first tests were done in 1999). We missed the diagnosis. I'm sorry. I'm terribly sorry."

In a videotaped statement before his death on Aug. 8, 2007, Saperstein and his wife said, "(We) were shocked. I mean shocked out of our minds. Not only do we have cancer, but the cancer was there in 1999. The potential for cure was there in 1999. I could have been operated on and ... been cured of this particular problem."

Stanley Saperstein sued the hospital and Cuello five months before his death in 2007 after the hospital refused to discuss a settlement. His widow filed a second suit in June. They seek more than $15,000 in damages.

Saperstein's original test results were reviewed by a doctor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who said in court papers the beginnings of cancer were clear in 1999.

The hospital and Cuello say they are not liable because a three-year statute of limitations expired before the suit was filed. They say Cuello was not Saperstein's attending physician, but rather a consulting pathologist, and that she had no responsibility for Saperstein's care either before or after her initial review of his biopsy.

Saperstein's family attorney, Carey B. Reilly of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, said courts can allow for exceptions to the statute of limitations law, and should in this case.

"Simply put, the statute could not have expired because the time clock never started ticking," she said. "It couldn't because Dr. Cuello seemingly did not examine the original tissue samples nor properly supervise the resident who did."