In the News

Wife of former physician sues Danbury Hospital

by Ethan Fry
Danbury News-Times

November 13, 2008

DANBURY — The widow of a doctor who worked at Danbury Hospital for more than three decades is suing the hospital and one of its physicians, saying a pre-cancerous condition the doctor had in 1999 was misdiagnosed and cost him his life.

Eleanor Saperstein, who was married to Dr. Stanley Saperstein, a celebrated area physician who died in August 2007 at age 64 from throat cancer, is pursuing damages against the hospital and Dr. Beatriz Cuello.

Lawyers opposing the lawsuit — which requests damages in excess of $15,000, with a final amount to be decided by a jury — are arguing that the hospital should be spared liability for Saperstein’s death, not because they weren’t negligent, but because the statute of limitations for Saperstein or his family to seek damages has passed.

Cuello, a pathologist at the hospital, should have recognized Saperstein had pre-cancerous growths on his throat in August 1999, when slides of a tissue sample taken from Saperstein was analyzed there, the lawsuit claims.

Cuello signed a report diagnosing Saperstein with a simpler, non-cancerous condition.

A call to the lawyer defending the hospital in the case was not returned Wednesday, but a hospital spokesperson issued a statement saying the hospital could not comment specifically on Saperstein’s care.

“Most importantly, we sympathize with the Saperstein family on the passing of our great friend and respected colleague, Stanley Saperstein,” the statement read.

“Regarding the noted suit, allegations are just allegations and can only be decided through due legal process, not in the court of public opinion. Danbury Hospital will respect and uphold the state and federal privacy laws that prohibit us from commenting on any patient’s care,” the statement said.

On Aug. 19, 1999, Cuello performed a tissue analysis on a sample of Saperstein’s esophagus taken three days earlier, the 38-page lawsuit says. The analysis, signed by Cuello, diagnosed reflux esophagitis, a common inflammation condition.

But about six years later, after Saperstein was diagnosed with throat cancer, Dr. Frank Braza, the vice chairman of the hospital’s pathology department, reviewed the slides again and noted pre-cancerous growths.

Further, the suit claims, the slides were reviewed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which issued a report dated Jan. 11, 2006, that indicated “high grade dysplasia,” or what is defined as a “disordered growth or faulty development” of tissue.

The report added: “Cannot exclude invasive adenocarcinoma,” a glandular malignant tumor.

Carey Reilly, a lawyer from the firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder who is representing Saperstein, said she doubts Cuello even looked at the slides in 1999, but rather relied on the analysis of a resident assigned to her.

“Our argument is that this pre-cancerous condition … was right there on two out of the three slides,” Reilly said. “It was not a subtle finding. It was not something that was a borderline judgment call. It was clear as can be.

“(Cuello) is an experienced pathologist reading a routine pathology slide,” Reilly continued. “Our position is: How could she miss it? She wouldn’t have missed it if she had looked at it.”

Less than two weeks after the Sloan-Kettering report was issued, Braza wrote a report that concluded, as the Sloan-Kettering analysis did, that “the atypical glandular changes should have been included in the original report.”

In a videotaped statement made before his death, Saperstein said he and his wife, after learning of what they saw as a misdiagnosis in 1999, “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, and, and been cured of this particular problem.”

Reilly said the case is especially egregious because of Saperstein’s history at the hospital, where he worked for 35 years, was the chief of the chronic dialysis unit, and together with his wife established an educational endowment for diabetic complications in 2001.

Reilly said the Sapersteins filed the lawsuit as a last resort, after the hospital “flatly refused” to entertain the possibility of a settlement.

“They are hiding behind the statute of limitations,” she said. “This is their colleague, their friend. Everybody knew and loved Dr. Saperstein. This is how they treat their friend. This is how they’re treating one of their own. That is just a slap in the face.”

The lawsuit claims Cuello misdiagnosed the condition and failed to recognize Saperstein was at risk for a range of conditions, principally cancer, that she failed to consult with other doctors regarding her diagnosis, and she failed to discuss the slides with Saperstein’s referring physician.

The suit was first filed in April 2007, four months before Saperstein’s death. This August, the hospital asked a judge to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the statute of limitations applicable in the case had passed in 2002.

Oral arguments on the motion are set to take place in Waterbury Superior Court next month.