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Lawsuit: When PACU Lights Dimmed, Doc Asked Wife to Hold Penlight on Her Husband's Leaking JP Drain

Woman claims the sight of the oozing incision caused her to faint and fall, fracturing her distal fibula and tearing a ligament.

Published: August 16, 2018

HERE, HOLD THIS HERE, HOLD THIS The courts ruled it was reasonable for a doctor to ask a patient's wife to hold a penlight while he tightened the man's JP drain with additional sutures.

If you need an extra set of hands as you're caring for a patient, is it OK to ask the patient's relative to help out? Under some circumstances the answer appears to be yes, a New York court ruled — even if the relative sustains injury as a result.

In January 2012, New York Presbyterian ENT resident Benjamin Talei, MD, got word that a patient's Jackson-Pratt drain was not suctioning correctly. Dr. Talei entered the PACU to examine the drain placed in patient John Heinze's neck. Mr. Heinze had undergone excision of a parotid tumor earlier that day and was awaiting discharge.

Dr. Talei determined that the drain needed to be tightened with additional sutures. According to testimony, after he placed the first few sutures, the room lights unexpectedly dimmed, possibly because it was "quiet time" in the PACU. According to Mr. Heinze's wife, Joy DeVries Heinze, Dr. Talei did not turn on auxiliary lighting in the PACU bay. Instead, he asked her to hold a penlight on the wound for him while he finished suturing (In a deposition, Dr. Talei denied this, saying he never carried a penlight as a resident).

Holding the penlight required Ms. Heinze to gaze at her husband's wound, she says. She described it as 5 inches long, bloody, with "secretions... like chutney" emerging from the wound.

Ms. Heinze testified that she became nauseous and told Dr. Talei she could no longer hold the penlight. She handed it back to him, walked toward the foot of the stretcher, fainted and fell, fracturing her distal fibula and tearing a ligament. Ms. Heinze's injury required surgery — she claimed that she later developed DVT and traumatic arthritis in her left ankle as a result of the accident.

The couple sued New York Presbyterian Hospital for an unspecified amount, claiming negligence and malpractice. The hospital had hired medical personnel who were "careless, unskillful and negligent," the suit charged. Dr. Talei "should have sought the services of a nurse or other physician..." and he should have considered the effect "that participating in a medical procedure would have on an untrained lay person."

Not so fast, ruled the Supreme Court of New York, New York County. Relying on expert testimony from defense witness Babak Givi, MD, a head and neck surgeon, the New York Supreme Court disagreed and dismissed the Heinze's case.

When the lights unexpectedly dimmed, Dr. Givi testified, "Dr. Talei's request for plaintiff to hold a penlight was entirely reasonable." He pointed out that it would have been inappropriate for Dr. Talei to interrupt suturing and break the sterile field to go look for a nurse or physician to help him. "A leak in a drainage tube should be closed as expeditiously as possible," Dr. Givi testified. "A layperson is capable of holding a flashlight."

"Many, if not most adults have witnessed various types of medical procedures without incident," Dr. Givi continued. "Hospitals and birthing centers routinely allow fathers to be present at childbirth, an event which may involve the visualization of a great deal more blood than would have been observed here, and the father may even be allowed to cut the umbilical cord... Most persons would not have fainted under the circumstances present here, and that there was no reason for Dr. Talei to suspect that plaintiff might do so."

Ms. Heinze's attorney did not respond to requests for comment. According to New York Presbyterian's attorneys, Ms. Heinze has filed a notice of appeal.

Outpatient Surgery Staff

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