A recent edition of The Ethicist column in The New York Times began with a husband writing about his wife, who had "lost the use of her legs when radiation to shrink a growth destroyed part of her spinal cord." The husband also wrote that he "[had] confidence in our physicians and had no doubt that a malpractice suit would be a mistake," and he mentioned the injury only as an introduction to another issue involving the lifetime care facility they had hired.
I assume the woman suffered from "radiation-induced myelopathy," a rare but known complication of spinal radiosurgery in which the radiation damages the myelin sheaths around the nerves connected to the spinal cord. Fear of radiation-induced myelopathy - which can cause minor injuries ranging from temporary numbness, to serious complications like hemorrhaging in the spinal cord, to debilitating permanent injuries like chronic progressive myelopathy or acute paralysis of the legs, hips and any part of the body below the vertebrae affected - has historically limited how aggressive doctors can be in treating spinal tumors, growths and cancers.
It is quite possible that the complications experienced by the writer's wife were unavoidable and that a malpractice suit would indeed be a mistake, but it's also possible that malpractice was involved. If we were investigating the case, we would start with three questions.
First, was she given radiation therapy for a spinal tumor? Although radiation-induced myelopathy can occur after spinal radiation therapy even if the doctors do everything correctly, if the woman’s spine was injured by radiation intended to treat something other than a spinal tumor, then the oncologist, radiologist, or hospital lab technician were likely negligent. If, for example, the radiation therapy was intended to treat a tumor in her pancreas or another organ, but too much radiation was used or the radiation was misdirected, then her spinal cord could have been injured as a result of their negligence.
Second, was she warned that paralysis could be a complication of the treatment? Patients have the right to make an informed decision about the treatment they will undergo, and physicians have a duty to warn patients of the foreseeable risks, side effects and publications of the procedures. The risk of paralysis from spinal cord radiation is well-known in the medical community. If she was not told that paralysis was a risk of her procedure, she may have a claim arising from her lack of informed consent.
Third, was she an appropriate candidate for radiation therapy near her spinal cord, and did the doctors use an appropriately limited dose? Many oncologists use minimal amounts of radiation treatment, typically at or below an 8-Gy equivalent does, unless the patient has an urgent complication like malignant spinal cord compression. If her condition did not warrant that sort of risky treatment, or if the doctors or hospitals used too high a dose, then she could have a claim for malpractice in the performance of the radiation therapy, even if she knew paralysis was a potential risk of the procedure.
For over 60 years, the medical malpractice and radiation therapy complication lawyers at The Beasley Firm have set the standard for representation of patients seriously injured by physicians' and hospitals' negligence. Through our perseverance and dedication, our clients have been awarded over $2 billion in settlements and verdicts. If you or a loved one has been injured by radiation therapy, please contact our medical negligence team of lawyers, doctors, or nurses at (215) 866-2424 for a free, confidential consultation.