BANGOR, Maine, Jan. 26, 2016 – A jury in northern Maine has awarded $1.8 million to a Millinocket man who nearly died from a heart infection in 2011, eight months after a Bangor hospital failed to share blood test results with his family doctor.
The verdict in favor of retired millworker John Pierce and his wife, Clara, was announced around 7 p.m. at Penobscot County Superior Court. It concluded a six-day civil trial that shined a light on communication failures in Maine’s healthcare system.
The Berman & Simmons law firm represented the Pierces in the medical malpractice case against St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, primary care physician Dr. Edward Dunstan of Millinocket, and his employer, Millinocket Regional Hospital.
At the trial, attorney Benjamin Gideon contended that if those providers had communicated properly and shared the results of Pierce’s blood test in May 2010, they would have diagnosed a serious infection causing damage to his heart. Instead, Pierce’s condition was left undiagnosed for eight months. He needed emergency open heart surgery to save his life.
“We’re pleased with the outcome and thankful for the hard work and time put in by the jury,” Gideon said. “At its core, this case was about more than John and Clara Pierce. It was about a problem in healthcare that affects everyone, the lack of communication between providers, with results that can be catastrophic.”
“Maine families put their trust in our state’s doctors and hospitals to communicate with the same level of care and concern they would expect for their own loved ones,” Gideon said. “When that trust is broken, it’s important to hold individuals and institutions accountable.”
Pierce went to the ER at St. Joseph Hospital on May 31, 2010, suffering from recurring fevers, shortness of breath, and weakness. A physician assistant ordered blood culture tests. The results were still pending when Pierce was sent home with instructions to follow up with his primary care physician, Dr. Dunstan.
The tests showed Pierce’s blood was positive for viridans streptococci, indicating a potentially life-threatening medical condition. But no one at the hospital ever shared that critical information with Pierce’s doctor in Millinocket, Dr. Dunstan. And although Dr. Dunstan was aware the testing had been done, he never requested the results.
Over the next eight months, Pierce went to see Dr. Dunstan six times. The fevers, shakes, and other flu-like symptoms kept getting worse. Pierce lost more than 30 pounds as his infection and associated heart condition remained undiagnosed and untreated.
In February 2011, Pierce was struggling to breathe and was taken by helicopter to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Doctors at EMMC obtained the archived lab results from St. Joseph Hospital from May 2010, and they realized that a bacterial infection had gradually been destroying Pierce’s heart for at least eight months. On Feb. 13, Pierce underwent emergency open heart surgery to replace his mitral and aortic valves. Although the surgery saved his life, Pierce was left with permanent damage to his heart.