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Hospital Accused of Elaborate Cover-Up After Unnecessary Surgery

Patient's lawsuit says she had organs removed for no reason following mistaken pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Published: August 10, 2017

DOUBLE TROUBLE Timothy Schmitt, MD, and Meenakshi Singh, MD, allegedly allowed a patient to mistakenly believe she had cancer.

The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City and 2 of its physicians orchestrated an elaborate cover-up of a mistaken pancreatic cancer diagnosis that led to an unnecessary surgery, according to a lawsuit filed by Wendy Ann Noon Berner, the woman who allegedly had her pancreas and other organs removed for no reason.

Ms. Berner, a 46-year-old Shawnee, Kans., resident, says she grew very suspicious when she was asked to sign an affidavit affirming that she'd had "wonderful" treatment from "all of the hospital's nurses, doctors and employees" during her surgery, which was performed in September 2015. She refused to sign the document.

Her subsequent lawsuit is the latest development in a controversy that came to light last summer when a University of Kansas Hospital pathologist, Lowell L. Tilzer, MD, PhD, filed a whistleblower suit. Dr. Tilzer claimed the hospital had mistakenly diagnosed an "anonymous patient" as having cancer, had performed an unnecessary surgery and had then tried to cover up the mistake, instead of carrying out a root-cause analysis, as Dr. Tilzer demanded.

Ms. Berner had undergone a Whipple procedure and had never been informed that she didn't have cancer after all, says Dr. Tilzer. When Dr. Tilzer was rebuffed by hospital administrators, he asked the Joint Commission to investigate, and, he claims, was berated by hospital CEO Bob Page, CPA, MBA, for having done so.

Meanwhile, Ms. Berner, her suspicions having been raised by the hospital's "wonderful" treatment request, began doing some digging of her own. She says she learned about Dr. Tilzer's whistleblower suit and finally realized "for the very first time" that she was the anonymous patient — that she'd been misdiagnosed, that she'd never had cancer, and that she'd undergone "an unnecessary surgery bringing about lifelong complications and consequences." Her suit accuses the hospital and physicians of fraud, negligence and civil conspiracy.

The misdiagnosis was discovered by other members of the hospital's pathology department after the surgery, according to Ms. Berner's lawsuit. Meenakshi Singh, MD, who was chair of the pathology department at the time and who's also named in Ms. Berner's suit, was reportedly responsible. The suit accuses her of negligently failing to get a second opinion and of claiming she had done so, and of going to great lengths to cover up her misdiagnosis.

Timothy Schmitt, MD, FACS, who performed Ms. Berner's surgery and is also named in the suit, is accused of actively participating in the alleged cover-up, and of trying to conceal the misdiagnosis with a "false narrative" that Ms. Berner had a history of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. It was Dr. Schmitt, she says, who asked her to affirm her "wonderful" treatment.

Dr. Tilzer later dropped his whistleblower suit, but his complaint to the Joint Commission led to an investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which corroborated his concerns. Among other things, CMS says that the hospital's governing body had "failed to ensure the hospital adequately responded to and thoroughly investigated a misread lab sample," and that the hospital's medical staff had "failed to inform the patient of a misread lab specimen that revealed she did not ever have cancer; failed to inform the patient during her hospitalization that she did not have cancer and that her appendix had been removed during surgery; failed to update the patient's medical record to remove the diagnosis of cancer, and failed to completely and thoroughly investigate the incident."

Neither the hospital nor Dr. Schmitt responded to requests for comment. Dr. Singh is reportedly no longer with the hospital and could not be reached for comment.

Jim Burger

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