Bruce White hauled thousands of gallons of gas a day for years. These days, carrying a gallon of milk is a challenge for the Union County, South Carolina man.
White worked 15-plus hours many days, manhandling hoses that, full of fuel, weighed more than 200 pounds to deliver petroleum products. He loved his job and took pride in it. December will mark the sixth year since the 51-year-old has had that joy.
“I’m embarrassed by what I am no longer capable of doing,” he said Friday. “I loved my work. I wish I could drive now.”
White injured his shoulder trying to dislodge stuck valves on his tanker truck in March 2003. He re-injured it that December and underwent three unsuccessful surgeries in 2004. The second and third surgeries were done by Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas in 2004.
During the third surgery, White suffered extensive damage to his axillary nerve that’s left his shoulder in severe pain and incapable of returning muscle tone to his right arm. On Friday, the tall, trim White demonstrated the difference between his arms — his left, firm like molded Jell-O; his right, wobbly like jelly.
Two days earlier, a jury ruled that medical negligence existed on the part of Michael Kissenberth, who was a fellow at the clinic at the time of the surgery, and failure to obtain informed consent existed on the part of Richard J. Hawkins, co-founder of the clinic and a highly regarded shoulder surgeon.
The jury ruled actual damages of more than $1.1 million in favor of White, and an additional $500,000 to his wife, Linda, for a loss of consortium. Before the trial entered assessment of punitive damages, the parties reached a confidential settlement.
“It’s going to help, but I’d rather go back to work,” Bruce White said. “I was making what, to me, was good money. We always could do what we wanted to do for 25 years.”
The Whites and their attorney, Charlie Hodge, said they were “appreciative the jury realized the truth.”
Hodge, who tried the case with partner Ryan Langley, said the jury’s verdict proves Hawkins presented to White that he would be performing the surgery, but then allowed the lesser experienced Kissenberth to conduct the operation on Oct. 7, 2004.
“If (patients) think they are going to the greatest shoulder surgeon in the world, they have the right to be operated on by that surgeon,” Hodge said. “That’s part of making an informed decision.”
Hodge said Hawkins was being paid $2 million a year by Triad Hospitals, the company that formerly owned Mary Black Health System, to do surgeries at a facility constructed adjacent to Mary Black Hospital. The attorney said fellows such as Kissenberth and John Franklin, who unsuccessfully operated on White on Aug. 24, 2004, made about $48,000 a year.
Hodge presented to jurors Kissenberth’s operative notes from the October 2004 surgery in which he recorded, “The axillary nerve was visualized through the axilla in the posterior portal,” and depositions and testimony that the axillary nerve should not be seen if the portal is correctly placed on the patient.
Neither Hawkins nor Kissenberth could recall from the witness stand who placed the portal. Hodge presented testimony that Hawkins was seen in street clothes shortly after White’s surgery and never mentioned re-scrubbing for the next procedure, which Hodge says proves Hawkins did not do the surgery.
White experienced overwhelming pain, and anesthesiologist Hany Louka was called to place a second indwelling catheter in the right front side area of White’s neck.
In his deposition and during the trial, Hawkins said the catheter caused the damage, although the catheter was placed 8 to 10 inches from the nerve.
“I hate it for Louka, the way they tried to blame him,” White said.
Hodge countered with depositions from Dr. Martin Gillespie and his wife, Dr. Stacy Gillespie. The Gillespies treated White in May 2005 when they lived in the Upstate and Martin Gillespie worked at Orthopaedic Associates and performed a fourth surgery on White that was more successful than the previous three.
Stacy Gillespie conducted tests on White and found a 90 percent reduction in amplitude of nerve response and concluded with a “reasonable degree of medical certainty” the most probable cause of damage was the posterior portal made during the October 2004 procedure.
Martin Gillespie told White the August and October surgeries were conducted too close together, and before he operated on White, took pictures to document the placement of the portal.
In his deposition, Martin Gillespie said: “It’s lower than any portal I’ve ever placed. … All I can say is that portal placed the axillary nerve at risk.”
A receptionist at the clinic’s Simpsonville location said Hawkins was in surgery and Kissenberth was with patients Friday. A message seeking comments from Hawkins and Kissenberth was returned by Tina Hollifield, administrative assistant to Hawkins.
Hollifield said: “We can say the Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas is still committed to providing excellent care, and the White matter is concluded.”
Hollifield declined to comment on a series of follow-up questions and said the clinic and doctors would be making no more comments.
Gary Lovell Jr., the attorney who represented Hawkins, replied to phone and e-mail requests for an interview with this statement: “There was a verdict and the matter has been concluded by agreement between the parties.”
Messages left for Kissenberth’s attorney Billy Gunn were not returned.
The 2005 surgery helped White regain some functions of his arm. On Friday, he called Gillespie “the best doctor in the world.” White can tie his shoes and button his shirts again, but the nerve pain requires intense medication and still prevents him from sleeping more than a couple of hours most nights.
When asked if Hawkins or Kissenberth ever apologized for any surgical difficulties, White said, “No, sir. They wouldn’t look us in the eye.”
Linda White said the family is grateful for the jury’s verdict, and they want to get the word out to others.
“We just don’t want to see anybody else get hurt,” she said. “People need to know.”
Hodge said the case “needed to be tried to present the truth” and he hopes it will “correct the behavior.” Hodge has two other suits filed. He anticipates one to go to trial in December, and the second to be tried next year.
“(White) made a fine living, and for that to be stripped away to be someone’s guinea pig, it didn’t sit well with us,” Hodge said.
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