Jury selection begins Monday in a trial that will ask whether a Long Island hospital was negligent in a case claiming an unidentified fluid dripped from an operating room ceiling onto a freshly harvested kidney and irrevocably damaged it.
Terrence and Gwendolyn Johnson of Queens were in separate operating rooms under anesthesia at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset on March 28, 2011, when they say a fluid dripped from the ceiling onto the freshly procured organ while it was on sterile ice in a receptacle.
One of Gwendolyn Johnson’s kidneys was being donated to her husband.
Terry Lynam, spokesman for Northwell Health, of which the hospital is a division, said this week that his institution has no comment on the case.
But in pretrial documents filed in Queens state Supreme Court, where the panel will be chosen Monday, Northwell lawyers say not only was the ceiling sound in the second-floor operating room, there were never any signs of breaches or leaks. They say several witnesses in the operating room at the time of the kidney’s harvest never saw fluid leaking from the ceiling.
Major health and safety problems occurring during transplants are supposed to be reported to the state Department of Health. North Shore never reported an incident involving an unidentified fluid leaking on an exposed kidney because it says a problem never occurred.
The Johnsons’ lawyers said they are basing their claim on a document written by Dr. Ernesto Molmenti, Northwell’s vice chairman of surgery and director of transplantation. He explained in his surgeon’s report that not only did an unidentified fluid drip from the ceiling onto the kidney as he readied it for transplant, a second drop of fluid also leaked onto his surgical visor.
Molmenti had been preparing the kidney at the “back table,” a traditional prep space in transplant operations where surgeons trim fat from the organ and flush it with solution. The organ is then taken to the adjoining operating room where the transplant occurs. The entire process is conducted under extremely sterile conditions, experts say.
Molmenti’s report is contained in Terrence Johnson’s medical records, which the couple obtained shortly after their discharge from the hospital.
The Johnsons contend in their lawsuit, filed in 2013, that North Shore was negligent because the ceiling in the operating room was faulty and jeopardized the kidney. They want the hospital to foot the cost of all medical bills, and address their pain, suffering and lost wages.
Lawyers for the couple say Terrence Johnson is in kidney failure now because the organ harvested from his wife, only 43 at the time of the surgery, was damaged by the hospital.
“The defendants . . . have taken the position that this never happened, and that Dr. Molmenti somehow imagined everything. They don’t believe it happened, and even if it did, they’re saying no harm no foul,” said Richard Obiol, one of two Freeport lawyers handling the Johnsons’ case.
He said hospital executives are “throwing Molmenti under the bus.”
Stephen Civardi, the Johnsons’ other lawyer, said medical records describe a series of hurried events that unfolded immediately after the alleged drops fell. As the couple lay anesthetized, oblivious to the kidney-rescue efforts spinning around them, doctors examined the organ microscopically, washed it and flushed it with antibiotics, Civardi said.
A meeting was held with top hospital personnel while Terrence Johnson awaited his transplant and experts weighed in on the safety of proceeding with the operation, said Civardi, citing his clients’ medical records.
Hours passed before Terrence Johnson finally received the kidney, Civardi added, and by then it barely functioned. Johnson is beset by organ failure and faces truncated life expectancy, and his wife now has just one kidney, Civardi said.
Experts have told Newsday that instances of major problems in kidney transplants are rare, but the risk for breaches in protocol are not zero.
Penalties are stiff when health and safety violations are found. In 2012, the kidney transplant program at the University of Toledo Medical Center was temporarily suspended after a nurse mistakenly trashed a healthy kidney harvested from a man who had hoped to donate it to his sister.
The nurse, who had just replaced another nurse whose shift had ended, thought the newly procured organ was medical waste. She threw it down a so-called hopper.