Improper Sodium Treatment Leads To $6.5 Million Verdict Against Danbury Hospital

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It's not uncommon for someone to be diagnosed with low sodium levels. It happens to distance runners, people who have just been operated on and those who consume too much alcohol, among others.

There are specific, widely accepted protocols for raising sodium levels back to normal using an intravenous drip of a saline solution. As dangerous as it is for sodium levels to remain low, it can be equally dangerous to increase them too quickly.

That's what happened to a Danbury Hosptial patient in 2006. Jeffrey Pattison, 44, died after his sodium levels were raised too quickly over a period of two weeks, according to plaintiff lawyers. Last week, a Danbury Superior Court jury awarded $6.5 million to his estate, after accepting the plaintiff's arguments that the hospital was careless in overseeing his treatment.

The jury reached the verdict on April 4, after deliberating four days. Two of Pattison's adult children testified during the four-week trial. Also testifying, said plaintiff's attorney Sean McElligott of Bridgeport's Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, was Dr. Ronald Goldenberg, the co-director of the intensive care unit at New York University Medical Center, who described the proper way to treat someone who had Jeffrey Pattison's condition.

"It's not an obscure rule," McElligott said. "It's there on Wikipedia."

Pattison had fallen on hard times. He lost his job as a mover and begin drinking a lot of Corona - a beer with no sodium - over a six-month period. "He was feeling down on himself. He was crumbling, with drinking a lot of beer," said Joshua Koskoff, who handled the case along with McElligott.

Pattison stopped drinking, at the urging of his wife, in late February of 2006, but began vomiting from the alcohol withdrawal, exacerbating the low sodium levels in his blood. By the time he went to the hospital March 1, 2006, he was pretty sick, Koskoff said. Sodium is important in proper nerve function, the passage of nutrients into cells and the maintenance of blood pressure. A low blood sodium level in can cause seizures, and eventually, a coma.

Pattison was in a semi-comatose state when he got to the hospital. Koskoff said medical professionals created a proper plan of care, which took into consideration that sodium levels should not be raised too quickly. But, Koskoff said, "nobody followed the plan."

One ICU doctor raised the levels way too much in the first 12-hour period. Then, that doctor left at 5 p.m. For the rest of Pattison's stay, sodium levels continued to be raised too fast. "The lights were on, but nobody was at home," Koskoff said, referring to the hospital. "There was nobody standing over him."

When the daytime doctor left, the hospital claims, another physician took over caring for Pattison. But the second physician was never identified by the hospital, Koskoff said. "This was a phantom doctor," Koskoff said. "There was no evidence a doctor was paying attention."

Eventually, the patient began suffering from a condition that occurs when one's sodium levels are raised too quickly. That condition is called central pontine myelinolysis, or CPM, and one of the characteristics of the condition is acute paralysis.

"It's extremely rare," Koskoff said. Pattison was put on life support, which was eventually withdrawn. He died on March 16, 2006.

The Koskoff firm filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of Pattison's wife and three adult children. The hospital did not want to settle, Koskoff said. Defense lawyers, from the firm of Danaher Lagnese in Hartford, argued that Pattison was very ill when he arrived at the hospital and had little chance of survival no matter what the treatment. Attorney R. Cornelius Danaher did not return a call seeking comment late last week.

McElligott, who said that Danbury juries can be very conservative, said that these jury members "really dug into the medical records." They ultimately awarded Pattison's family $3 million for his pain and suffering at the hospital and $3 million for loss of enjoyment of life's activities, factoring in a 30-year life expectancy. Finally, jurors awarded $500,000 in damages for the death itself, Koskoff said.

McElligott said a key witness was the deceased man's son, Bobby Pattison, a teacher at Newtown High School, who testified about what a great father Jeffrey Pattison was. "If you read the medical records, it sounded like he was an alcholic," McElligott said. "But when you listened to witnesses talk about how great their dad was, how hard he worked...he was a real person, a father."

- Courtesy of Conneticut Star Tribune -