Health & Medicine

November 16, 2012

Man who had arms, legs amputated sues Sutter Health

Robert Downey said he remembers going to bed holding his wife. His next memory was waking up in a hospital and being told that his hands and legs had been amputated.

Robert Downey said he remembers going to bed holding his wife. His next memory was waking up in a hospital and being told that his hands and legs had been amputated.

The amputations resulted from MSSA – methicillin-sensitive staphylococcus aureus – a cousin of the often deadly MRSA infection, but one that is typically treatable with antibiotics if caught early.

Downey and his wife, Cheri, said medical personnel at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento failed repeatedly to properly diagnose and treat the infection, even though their son had been treated for the similar infection at the hospital weeks earlier.

The Downeys, with their attorney Moseley Collins, held a news conference Thursday to announce they are suing the hospital and Sutter Health for medical malpractice.

The goal, Collins said, is to get Sutter Health to take responsibility for alleged medical mistakes and to "warn hospitals not to let this happen in their emergency room."

Gary Zavoral, a spokesman for Sutter Health, said hospital officials would not comment on Downey's case or the lawsuit.

Downey, 48, spent 20 years in law enforcement, with the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department and as a correctional officer for a prison facility for low-risk inmates formerly operated by the city of Folsom. He more recently worked as a salesman for a Folsom car dealer, and when the recession hit, he joined his wife in operating a respite care service.

The couple's life changed dramatically in summer 2011. They had taken their 11-year-old son to Sutter Memorial for treatment of a sore. Tests determined that the boy had the MRSA infection, antibiotics were administered intravenously and he recovered without complications, his father said.

When Robert Downey developed a similar sore a few weeks later, he said he feared he had the same infection. He saw the same physician's assistant – who remembered his son – but no culture was taken and he was given oral antibiotics.

When the infection did not clear up, Robert Downey saw the physician's assistant again. He went back a third time suffering with severe pain in his shoulder. By then he had done some research on MRSA and had read that it can cause "MRSA arthritis," he said.

On that visit to Sutter Memorial, Downey said, he saw a different physician's assistant. Downey told him he thought the infection was causing the shoulder pain. He said he was told that the sore and the shoulder pain were not related and that he was suffering from bursitis.

"I did feel a little relieved," Downey said. "I thought, 'OK, I have bursitis.' Hindsight is 20-20. I probably should have pressed harder."

Two days later, on July 20, he collapsed at home and was rushed to Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael. On Aug. 4, he underwent his first amputation. Doctors initially removed his hands and feet. Later they amputated his right leg at the knee and his left leg below the knee.

Downey has been fitted with prosthetic hands — "claws" he calls them — which he said have helped, allowing him to open doors, for example. More rehabilitation will be required before he can be fitted with prosthetic legs, he said.

In the more than a year that has followed, Cheri Downey has had to abandon her respite care business to become her husband's full-time caregiver. Both say they are grateful that he is still alive.

Because her husband was in a coma, Cheri had to make the decision to proceed with the amputations.

The couple say their faith and family have sustained them. Each has children from a previous marriage for a total of seven, ranging in age from 7 to 26.

Downey said the most difficult part of his recovery has been accepting that he must rely on others to help him with almost everything he does.

"My mind hasn't caught up with my body," he said. "My mind needs to catch up with my body so I can be at ease."

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