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Wichita School Board To Vote On Approval $500,000 Settlement Over Young Boy's Severe Chemical Burn

January 24, 2014

The Wichita school board District 259 will very shortly vote on approving a $500,000 settlement designed to end a lawsuit by a young boy who received a serious chemical burn at Kelly Elementary School.

The incident occurred back in 2009, when the first-grader went to take a bathroom break. After lowering his pants to use a urinal, the fabric of his sweatpants began soaking up liquid on the floor of the bathroom. The young boy pulled up his pants and noticed that they were wet and then tried to wipe them off with a paper towel. The boy then returned to class. About a half hour later, his teacher noticed that the boy was behaving abnormally and complained that his left hip was burning. The teacher told the boy to go see the school nurse.

In the personal injury lawsuit filed against the Wichita school district, the nurse is named as a co-defendant. The suit claims that the nurse never bothered to perform an examination of the young boy, instead, she simply handed him an ice pack and told him to go back to class. It didn’t take long for the burning and pain to increase, with the teacher noticing that the boy was unusually quiet. During reading time, the teacher saw that he was laying in the fetal position and decided the problem was a real emergency. The boy’s concerned teacher picked the boy up and carried him back to the nurse.

At that point, Thomas finally decided to examine the boy’s hip and was surprised to find a wound that measured five inches by four inches and was seriously inflamed. The boy was then taken to a nearby hospital where doctors discovered that he had suffered a third degree chemical burn. The wound, caused by a dangerous alkaline cleaning chemical, continued to spread and resulted in several return trips to the hospital’s burn unit. The young boy was forced to undergo several expensive and painful surgeries, including skin grafting.

The boy’s mother filed suit against the Wichita school district on behalf of her young son and argued that the school system was negligent on several fronts. First, the school janitors should never have allowed such potentially harmful cleaning chemicals to collect on the floor of the elementary school bathroom where young children could easily be injured. Additionally, the suit claims that the district fell down on its job of protecting students by failing to properly train the janitors in the safe use of the cleaning chemicals and the school nurse for failing to properly access a student's injuriesand for how to identify and treat chemical burns.

The school board must now decide whether to approve a $500,000 settlement in the case. Should the settlement be approved, it would represent the largest payout by the district in recent memory.   If the school board does not approve the settlement, there will be a jury trial in September, 2014.

Though the money would be a welcome relief for the family of the boy who have suffered through so much pain, the reality is that nothing could ever compensate them for what they’ve had to endure. The settlement is a step in the right direction and forces the school district to take financial responsibility for its failures. Additionally, the hope is that such a large monetary blow will require officials in the Wichita school district to implement safe practices in the use of cleaning chemicals so that no other children suffer similar injuries.

If you or someone you know has been injured and would like to discuss your case with an attorney, please contact one of our experienced Kansas accident lawyers at the Warner Law Offices today. Thomas M. Warner, Jr. is ready to answer whatever questions you might have and can be reached at (316) 269-2500.

Source: “Wichita school district considers $500,000 settlement in lawsuit alleging student’s chemical burns,” by Suzanne Perez Tobias, published at Kansas.com.

See Our Related Blog Posts:
A Medical Malpractice Lawyer in Wichita Review Delivery Room Errors or Obstetric Malpractice
Recent Survey Aims To Shed Light On Hidden Hospital Costs

Editorial: Board of Healing Arts must toughen standards

January 03, 2014

By The Capital-Journal
People who check themselves into a hospital for surgery do so knowing there are risks involved and that not all surgeries deliver the desired result. But they assume those risks, after assessing their medical condition and needs, with the assumption a competent surgeon will be performing the operation.

Fortunately, that is the case the vast majority of the time.

Unfortunately, some people find their way to a physician who has a history of problems unbeknownst to his or her patients, who put their faith in a specialist they really know very little about.

It is the job of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to respond to reports, or complaints, about physicians and deal with them in a manner that ensures the state’s citizens are being treated by qualified and capable professionals.

The history of an orthopedic specialist who has been practicing in Kansas since 1996 is enough to make anyone question whether the Board of Healing Arts has set its standards high enough to protect patients or is paying attention to all the information it receives, or should be receiving.

The physician, whose history was reviewed in a story published recently in The Topeka Capital-Journal and at CJOnline.com, has a long, and documented, history of alcohol and drug problems. He also is the subject of multiple, active malpractice lawsuits.

Granted, the filing of a malpractice suit is not evidence of actual malpractice. But enough of the orthopedic specialist’s surgical work has required repair by other physicians to indicate there was reason for concern. The Board of Healing Arts actually issued an emergency suspension of the physician in 2011 following a report he exhibited erratic behavior and declined to submit to a drug test. He once again, however, is practicing and is considered in good standing with the Board of Healing Arts.

Kansas is preparing to initiate a drug testing program for welfare recipients under which their benefits can be lost for a period of time if they fail or decline a test. Multiple failures could result in a permanent loss of benefits.

But in Kansas, a physician who has a history of drug abuse dating back to 1985 and declines a drug test need only sit on the sidelines for a year before being returned to good standing with the Board of Healing Arts.

That board might want to consider raising its standards.

Wichita surgeon rehabilitating career scarred by drugs, alcohol Malpractice suits surface against Le

December 30, 2013

By Tim Carpenter
timothy.carpenter@cjonline.com
WICHITA — Kolten Weaver is 5-foot-5 and a bit over 110 pounds, and as a teenager, filled out a calendar punctuated by pursuits ranging from wrestling, swimming and skating to hunting and riding motorcycles.

"He was the kind of kid that you couldn't get grass to grow under his feet," said his mother, Greta Short.

Weaver, of Mount Hope, also had Scheuermann's kyphosis — a disease of mysterious origin that propels uneven growth, or wedging, of vertebrae. The process bends the spine in the thoracic area to create a rigid arc. This hunchback condition is notorious for causing neck, back and leg strain. The deformity applies unhealthy pressure on internal organs.

Weaver turned in 2010 to Wichita orthopedic specialist Kris Lewonowski, who has practiced in Kansas since 1996, to determine if anything could be done.

His family didn't know Lewonowski harbored secrets, which the Kansas Board of Healing Arts helps to conceal, of a career dotted with drug and alcohol abuse. If such information had been available to the public, several former patients said, they would have saved themselves pain and spared Lewonowski malpractice lawsuits.

"The Board of Healing Arts hides from the public any information that the public needs to know about doctors in whom they're placing their lives," said Hutchinson attorney Matthew Bretz, who filed a suit against Lewonowski. "Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of good doctors out there. But there are also some drug addicts out there. The Board of Healing Arts just doesn't protect the public from people like that."

Lewonowski said during an interview Monday that he had never jeopardized the welfare of a patient through substance abuse.

"Never have I been under the influence around a patient, in the hospital, in the clinic or in the operating room," he said.

His attorney, Brian Wright, of Great Bend, said Lewonowski was among the "most monitored physician that there is in the state."

 

Spinal fusion,

26 screws

During Weaver's second visit to Lewonowski's clinical office, the physician recommended invasive surgery based on the notion conservative treatment common for children — braces and physical therapy — would be of little benefit because Weaver's spine had stopped growing.

He proposed an 11-level spinal fusion and insertion of metal instruments to hold the alignment. The strategy was to implant vertical rods on the sides of the spine and secure horizontal bars and hooks. Twenty-six screws would be drilled into bone.

"He said that by the next summer, I would be out jet skiing again," Weaver said.

Surgery occurred May 26, 2010, at Via Christi Hospital in Wichita. Lewonowski surprised Short moments before the operation by explaining he had been up all night studying material on performing bone fusions with stem cells rather than with grafts. The doctor declared intent to tackle the stem cell option, she recalled, despite his assertion Weaver's insurance company would be appalled by the cost.

"He was very erratic," Short said. "Like he had drank three pounds of Folgers coffee."

The operation took several hours more than anticipated, but Lewonowski emerged confident in the result.

"Things went pretty good," the doctor said later in a deposition tied to a lawsuit. "I bet I was pleased."

Weaver said events of the past three and a half years made him regret placing faith in Lewonowski's expertise. The post-operative phase of his life was challenging from the start. In ICU after surgery, Kolten stopped breathing.

"This kid was as white as the sheet he was lying on," his mother said. When he woke the next day, the pain was alarming. "He looked over at me and screamed: 'I'm done. Take me home. I don't want to do this anymore.' "

At a checkup following the operation, testing suggested a metal screw placed in one of Weaver's vertebrae might be protruding in proximity to a lung. Lewonowski assured them misplacement of the screw was inconsequential.

"The Kolten Weaver case — a misplaced pedicle screw," Lewonowski said in the interview. "Those things happen 15 to 20 percent of the time. If a surgeon hasn't got a pedicle screw out of place in his career, he either hasn't done them or is lying. The removal of those screws — I can't overemphasize — was optional. It's an elective surgery."

Short, who has paramedic training and had worked at medical facilities, said Lewonowski threatened during an office visit to take away all her son's pain medication if he didn't quit acting like a "baby" regarding pain. Lewonowski began canceling appointments without explanation, she said. Anticipated therapy was never ordered. Weaver's discomfort continued, but the doctor urged him to resume regular activities.

Surgeon's license pulled

In hindsight, Lewonowski said he developed a dislike for his young patient.

"His attitude, his demonstrative behavior, his noncompliance, his yelling and cursing at the nurses — his noncompliance was a major issue," Lewonowski said.

He accused Weaver of staging a campaign to secure excessive drugs for himself and suggested he was trying to score for others.

"This appeared to be more of an abusive situation than somebody that required those pain meds," Lewonowski said. "And you've got to remember, too, Kolten Weaver is not the first patient I've ever seen who's been in pain after a back surgery."

In May 2012, Weaver underwent corrective surgery in Texas to remove a screw protruding from bone near his aorta and extract a screw extending from a vertebrae at the lining of his left lung.

Weaver said he can neither sit nor stand for lengthy periods. Sleeping is a challenge because getting comfortable is nearly impossible. He lost a dish-washing job because he was viewed as an insurance liability. The U.S. Social Security Administration declared him disabled. He just turned 21 and will likely never work again.

While Weaver struggled with his new frame of reference, Lewonowski was sacked by emergency order of the state Board of Healing Arts in April 2011. The doctor didn't fight the one-year suspension of his Kansas medical license two and a half years ago but recently expressed skepticism he committed "conduct likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public in violation" of Kansas law.

"That's the charge," Lewonowski said. "Doesn't mean that I believe it to be true."

Suspension was an outcome of a showdown in which medical staff at Via Christi suspected Lewonowski to be under the influence. He refused a Kansas Medical Society request for a drug screen and a subsequent appeal by Via Christi officials for a blood exam.

A trio of lawsuits alleging negligence by Lewonowski, including one by Weaver, are on file in Sedgwick County District Court. This litigation compelled the doctor to face attorneys' questions in pretrial depositions that shed light on conduct hidden from patients, including his status as a self-described "recovering alcoholic" and perpetrator of repeated episodes of narcotics abuse.

"It shows a pattern and practice that goes back a long, long time," said Wichita attorney Larry Wall, who represents a client alleging Lewonowski was responsible for injuring her spinal cord during neck surgery.

"But his story is, because he's been under the microscope, there's no cleaner doctor in the world than him," Wall said.

Stealing pain meds

The first documented incident of substance abuse involving Lewonowski occurred during his surgical residency at the University of Southern California. Essentially, the 1984 University of Arkansas medical school graduate was diverting drugs from patients at a county hospital in Los Angeles. He said he inflated the amount of Demerol prescribed patients, dosed those individuals a medically appropriate amount and pocketed the extra.

"And, so, you say you gave then 200 (milligrams) and kept a hundred. I gave them a hundred," Lewonowski said in a deposition.

He departed USC in 1985 ahead of a dismissal letter and worked in Arkansas and California before he was readmitted to the university's residency program. In 1993, while trying to avoid a positive drug screen at USC, he substituted for urine a sample of Pedialyte warmed in a microwave to body temperature. His scheme didn't work because heat changed the chemistry so the liquid was dense with alcohol.

In 1997, while working at Kansas Orthopaedic Center in Wichita, he had a relapse with Demerol. He said it coincided with surgical procedures performed on him. Lewonowski sees patients at Galichia Medical Group in Wichita and once again is considered a physician in good standing by the Board of Healing Arts.

Betty Caw, of Wichita, walks with a cane — a reasonable consequence of multiple knee replacement operations. When her primary care physician retired, her files were transferred to Lewonowski at Kansas Orthopaedic Center. She made an appointment to discuss pain in her left knee, which had been replaced three times since the late 1980s.

Caw, 79, had no knowledge of her new doctor's affinity for controlled substances. Lewonowski said he spoke with her about his alcoholism.

"I wish I had known," Caw said. "I'd never have gone near him."

To this day, the public can't obtain a declaration of fact from Board of Healing Arts' archives about how Lewonowski landed in hot water just as he prepared to perform knee surgery on Caw.

Delayed knee swap

In Lewonowski's clinic, he had diagnosed arthritis in Caw’s knees. He injected medicines into her knees once in 2009 and four times in 2010.

“I didn’t understand he couldn’t see he was injecting into the plastic," she said. "But he gets paid for doing injections, and I had good insurance. He not only injected the left. He injected the right."

After months of injections, Caw developed an infection in the left knee. In December 2010, Lewonowski concluded the solution was removal of the left knee and insertion of antibiotics. Her knee would be reinstalled if treatment cleared the infection.

"If he hadn’t diagnosed her as having bilateral osteoarthritis and hadn’t injected her, there would be no infection," said Bretz, who represents Caw in a civil suit against Lewonowski and Via Christi.

Lewonowski pulled the old knee and scheduled her next operation for April 4, 2011, at Via Christi. After that initial knee replacement surgery date was scrubbed, Caw was readmitted April 8, administered anesthesia and wheeled into an operating room.

Lewonowski was met on his way to Caw's surgery by Kansas Medical Society staff member Judy Janes, who ran the state's Medical Advocacy Program for professionals struggling with illness, disability or addiction. Janes was on site in response to a report Lewonowski exhibited erratic behavior two days earlier at the hospital.

He said Janes requested that a drug test be completed by the end of the day. Via Christi administrators went further and proposed he submit to a blood test before launching any surgical procedure. Lewonowski left the hospital. After awakened, Caw learned her operation was called off a second time.

"Parameters of the testing changed and I was advised by counsel to not do the testing and therefore the surgery was canceled," Lewonowski said.

Via Christi suspended his orthopedic privileges April 8, 2011, and the Board of Healing Arts finalized its emergency license suspension April 12, 2011. Caw's knee was inserted at Wesley Medical Center in October of that year.

 

Secrecy is supreme

Bretz, the attorney for Caw, said the Board of Healing Arts' order labeled "confidential" the conduct inviting suspension. Lewonowski's behavior was an "imminent danger to the public health, safety or welfare," but details remain sealed.

Kathleen Selzler Lippert, executive director of the Board of Healing Arts, walked around questions about who benefited most from confidentiality when medical professionals, such as Lewonowski, ran afoul. She said nondisclosure of personal information to the public adhered to legal barriers and respected a "number of competing interests."

She said Lewonowski's conduct was "serious enough in this case for him to be suspended a significant period of time."

Wright, the attorney representing Lewonowski in the three malpractice cases, said state law on nondisclosure was written more than 25 years ago in an attempt to do more than sanction medical professionals. Individuals reporting suspected misconduct may need the cover of statutorial anonymity to protect themselves, he said.

"The expressed purpose of those laws is to improve the health care system," said Wright, who has defended malpractice cases for decades. "The reason the law was enacted was to empower those people to report inappropriate conduct."

The day before the Board of Healing Arts and Via Christi moved on Lewonowski, Dorothy White was scheduled to go under the doctor's knife for a lower-back procedure.

Lewonowski had declined, initially, to perform this surgery until she lost substantial weight. White said Lewonowski invited her to get involved in the "female hormone diet" that he was on. It would have required she receive shots from one of Lewonowski's friends.

However, Lewonowski's opinion about her girth and ineligibility for more back surgery changed without explanation. He insisted White consent to urgent removal of a cyst — no doctor since has recommended the surgery — to alleviate leg pain present since he operated on the Newton woman to fuse vertebrae and install plating Aug. 13, 2010.

"He was going to go in there and have findings to cover all his mistakes," said Wall, who represents White in her lawsuit against Lewonowski. "It was why he was interested in getting in there in a hurry."

An abscessed tooth kept White out of Lewonowski's operating room on the cusp of his suspension.

Dorothy and Craig White continue searching for answers to what might have gone awry during the initial neck surgery. Her ongoing pain, including a burning sensation along the left leg, led her at times to consider amputation and suicide.

"She walked into the hospital unaided by any artificial device," Craig White said. "After the surgery, she had great difficult supporting herself."

 

Impaired spinal cord?

In 2011 and 2012, Dorothy White was examined by specialists. Shortly after Lewonowski's license was suspended, one of those doctors, physician Theo Mellion, put distance between himself and Lewonowski's former patient.

"There's spinal cord damage. I can't see you anymore," White said Mellion told her.

White said doctor Dale Dalenberg decided she had Brown-Sequard syndrome. It was the result, White said, of an instrument impacting her spinal cord. She said Dalenberg told her "it looked like there was a forked object on my spinal cord."

The Whites said they were left to wonder about the significance of an evening visit to Lewonowski's office in 2010 — around the time of her neck surgery — when the smell of alcohol was on the doctor's breath.

As the Weaver, Caw and White lawsuits against Lewonowski crawled forward in February, Lewonowski's attorney filed a motion in district court to limit scope of deposition questions about alcohol and drug use. Wright included in the document details of Lewonowski's battle with liquor and narcotics.

Of his drug siphoning at USC, Lewonowski said he landed in a rehabilitation program for three weeks in Long Beach, Calif. The memo included contents of a 2003 deposition with an exchange between Lewonowski and an attorney about this first USC crisis.

"There was no physical addiction or anything," Lewonowski said. "I call it abuse. It was just a bad reaction to a bad situation."

"Are you an alcoholic?" the lawyer asked.

"Technically, yes, of course. Alcohol is a drug. If you're an addict then you're an alcoholic."

The brief indicates Lewonowski was readmitted to USC's residency program by adhering to the California Medical Board's diversion program. He relapsed in 1992 or 1993 amid a "problem between him and his wife," the document said. He consumed narcotics to counter depression and insomnia. When caught faking the urine test to USC, he went to a facility in Pasadena, Calif.

After moving to Kansas, the brief said, Lewonowski entered a Portland, Ore., center in December 1997 for addiction to narcotic pain medication. He asserted it was triggered by drugs prescribed by a doctor following surgery. Lewonowski attempted to treat his withdrawal with more narcotics and then took Compazine, which is prescribed for nausea and anxiety disorder. He was eventually hospitalized.

His sessions in Oregon lasted four months, and Wright's brief indicated Lewonowski reported his predicament to the Kansas Medical Society.

"I didn't have guys coming to my office and doing the handcuff routine," Lewonowski said. "No illegal prescriptions were ever written. I did not self-prescribe."

He was required by the medical society to submit to random urinalysis for five years.

In 2011, Wright's motion said, Lewonowski testified in a legal proceeding his license was suspended by the state for alcohol abuse but that statement was "actually not correct." His attorney monitoring the deposition advised him to not answer inquiries on that matter, so Lewonowski amended his remarks by saying, "I am not entirely sure how to answer that."

The brief by Wright offered a clarification: "He was stupid when he began using alcohol again in the more recent past. Alcohol was the source of his recent problem with the 2011 suspension."

 

‘Changed 100%’

Wright's document pointed to the consent order issued in April 2012 when the Board of Healing Arts reinstated Lewonowski's medical license. It also outlined confidential "treatment" and "monitoring" requirements that would remain in place until 2017.

"Have I got it under control?" Lewonowski said. "Yes. My life has changed 100 percent. The malpractice guys will say something different. They couldn't be more wrong."

He said publishing a story about his challenges would "hurt people."

"You're going to cause doctors who would otherwise come out to say: 'There's no way I'm coming out. No way am I going to get into recovery.' That's going to drive them underground," Lewonowski said.

He has resumed his surgical career and former patients have found their way back to him.

"I operated on three of them in the last week," the doctor said. "They know the stories. They are coming back to me because they trust me as a surgeon."

Lewonwoski's propensity for abuse of alcohol and drugs, according to available documents, placed the 56-year-old surgeon in treatment or counseling at least four times in his medical career.

"You see common elements that keep arising," said Wichita attorney Thomas Warner, who represents Weaver. "That made us think that this is not an isolated incident. A pervasive problem for him and, therefore, for his patients. He has an impairment issue that the Board of Healing Arts knows about, and they chose not to apparently do anything — at least in the long term."

Wichita surgeon rehabilitating career scarred by drugs, alcohol Malpractice suits surface against Le

December 30, 2013

By Tim Carpenter
timothy.carpenter@cjonline.com
WICHITA — Kolten Weaver is 5-foot-5 and a bit over 110 pounds, and as a teenager, filled out a calendar punctuated by pursuits ranging from wrestling, swimming and skating to hunting and riding motorcycles.

"He was the kind of kid that you couldn't get grass to grow under his feet," said his mother, Greta Short.

Weaver, of Mount Hope, also had Scheuermann's kyphosis — a disease of mysterious origin that propels uneven growth, or wedging, of vertebrae. The process bends the spine in the thoracic area to create a rigid arc. This hunchback condition is notorious for causing neck, back and leg strain. The deformity applies unhealthy pressure on internal organs.

Weaver turned in 2010 to Wichita orthopedic specialist Kris Lewonowski, who has practiced in Kansas since 1996, to determine if anything could be done.

His family didn't know Lewonowski harbored secrets, which the Kansas Board of Healing Arts helps to conceal, of a career dotted with drug and alcohol abuse. If such information had been available to the public, several former patients said, they would have saved themselves pain and spared Lewonowski malpractice lawsuits.

"The Board of Healing Arts hides from the public any information that the public needs to know about doctors in whom they're placing their lives," said Hutchinson attorney Matthew Bretz, who filed a suit against Lewonowski. "Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of good doctors out there. But there are also some drug addicts out there. The Board of Healing Arts just doesn't protect the public from people like that."

Lewonowski said during an interview Monday that he had never jeopardized the welfare of a patient through substance abuse.

"Never have I been under the influence around a patient, in the hospital, in the clinic or in the operating room," he said.

His attorney, Brian Wright, of Great Bend, said Lewonowski was among the "most monitored physician that there is in the state."

 

Spinal fusion,

26 screws

During Weaver's second visit to Lewonowski's clinical office, the physician recommended invasive surgery based on the notion conservative treatment common for children — braces and physical therapy — would be of little benefit because Weaver's spine had stopped growing.

He proposed an 11-level spinal fusion and insertion of metal instruments to hold the alignment. The strategy was to implant vertical rods on the sides of the spine and secure horizontal bars and hooks. Twenty-six screws would be drilled into bone.

"He said that by the next summer, I would be out jet skiing again," Weaver said.

Surgery occurred May 26, 2010, at Via Christi Hospital in Wichita. Lewonowski surprised Short moments before the operation by explaining he had been up all night studying material on performing bone fusions with stem cells rather than with grafts. The doctor declared intent to tackle the stem cell option, she recalled, despite his assertion Weaver's insurance company would be appalled by the cost.

"He was very erratic," Short said. "Like he had drank three pounds of Folgers coffee."

The operation took several hours more than anticipated, but Lewonowski emerged confident in the result.

"Things went pretty good," the doctor said later in a deposition tied to a lawsuit. "I bet I was pleased."

Weaver said events of the past three and a half years made him regret placing faith in Lewonowski's expertise. The post-operative phase of his life was challenging from the start. In ICU after surgery, Kolten stopped breathing.

"This kid was as white as the sheet he was lying on," his mother said. When he woke the next day, the pain was alarming. "He looked over at me and screamed: 'I'm done. Take me home. I don't want to do this anymore.' "

At a checkup following the operation, testing suggested a metal screw placed in one of Weaver's vertebrae might be protruding in proximity to a lung. Lewonowski assured them misplacement of the screw was inconsequential.

"The Kolten Weaver case — a misplaced pedicle screw," Lewonowski said in the interview. "Those things happen 15 to 20 percent of the time. If a surgeon hasn't got a pedicle screw out of place in his career, he either hasn't done them or is lying. The removal of those screws — I can't overemphasize — was optional. It's an elective surgery."

Short, who has paramedic training and had worked at medical facilities, said Lewonowski threatened during an office visit to take away all her son's pain medication if he didn't quit acting like a "baby" regarding pain. Lewonowski began canceling appointments without explanation, she said. Anticipated therapy was never ordered. Weaver's discomfort continued, but the doctor urged him to resume regular activities.

Surgeon's license pulled

In hindsight, Lewonowski said he developed a dislike for his young patient.

"His attitude, his demonstrative behavior, his noncompliance, his yelling and cursing at the nurses — his noncompliance was a major issue," Lewonowski said.

He accused Weaver of staging a campaign to secure excessive drugs for himself and suggested he was trying to score for others.

"This appeared to be more of an abusive situation than somebody that required those pain meds," Lewonowski said. "And you've got to remember, too, Kolten Weaver is not the first patient I've ever seen who's been in pain after a back surgery."

In May 2012, Weaver underwent corrective surgery in Texas to remove a screw protruding from bone near his aorta and extract a screw extending from a vertebrae at the lining of his left lung.

Weaver said he can neither sit nor stand for lengthy periods. Sleeping is a challenge because getting comfortable is nearly impossible. He lost a dish-washing job because he was viewed as an insurance liability. The U.S. Social Security Administration declared him disabled. He just turned 21 and will likely never work again.

While Weaver struggled with his new frame of reference, Lewonowski was sacked by emergency order of the state Board of Healing Arts in April 2011. The doctor didn't fight the one-year suspension of his Kansas medical license two and a half years ago but recently expressed skepticism he committed "conduct likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public in violation" of Kansas law.

"That's the charge," Lewonowski said. "Doesn't mean that I believe it to be true."

Suspension was an outcome of a showdown in which medical staff at Via Christi suspected Lewonowski to be under the influence. He refused a Kansas Medical Society request for a drug screen and a subsequent appeal by Via Christi officials for a blood exam.

A trio of lawsuits alleging negligence by Lewonowski, including one by Weaver, are on file in Sedgwick County District Court. This litigation compelled the doctor to face attorneys' questions in pretrial depositions that shed light on conduct hidden from patients, including his status as a self-described "recovering alcoholic" and perpetrator of repeated episodes of narcotics abuse.

"It shows a pattern and practice that goes back a long, long time," said Wichita attorney Larry Wall, who represents a client alleging Lewonowski was responsible for injuring her spinal cord during neck surgery.

"But his story is, because he's been under the microscope, there's no cleaner doctor in the world than him," Wall said.

Stealing pain meds

The first documented incident of substance abuse involving Lewonowski occurred during his surgical residency at the University of Southern California. Essentially, the 1984 University of Arkansas medical school graduate was diverting drugs from patients at a county hospital in Los Angeles. He said he inflated the amount of Demerol prescribed patients, dosed those individuals a medically appropriate amount and pocketed the extra.

"And, so, you say you gave then 200 (milligrams) and kept a hundred. I gave them a hundred," Lewonowski said in a deposition.

He departed USC in 1985 ahead of a dismissal letter and worked in Arkansas and California before he was readmitted to the university's residency program. In 1993, while trying to avoid a positive drug screen at USC, he substituted for urine a sample of Pedialyte warmed in a microwave to body temperature. His scheme didn't work because heat changed the chemistry so the liquid was dense with alcohol.

In 1997, while working at Kansas Orthopaedic Center in Wichita, he had a relapse with Demerol. He said it coincided with surgical procedures performed on him. Lewonowski sees patients at Galichia Medical Group in Wichita and once again is considered a physician in good standing by the Board of Healing Arts.

Betty Caw, of Wichita, walks with a cane — a reasonable consequence of multiple knee replacement operations. When her primary care physician retired, her files were transferred to Lewonowski at Kansas Orthopaedic Center. She made an appointment to discuss pain in her left knee, which had been replaced three times since the late 1980s.

Caw, 79, had no knowledge of her new doctor's affinity for controlled substances. Lewonowski said he spoke with her about his alcoholism.

"I wish I had known," Caw said. "I'd never have gone near him."

To this day, the public can't obtain a declaration of fact from Board of Healing Arts' archives about how Lewonowski landed in hot water just as he prepared to perform knee surgery on Caw.

Delayed knee swap

In Lewonowski's clinic, he had diagnosed arthritis in Caw’s knees. He injected medicines into her knees once in 2009 and four times in 2010.

“I didn’t understand he couldn’t see he was injecting into the plastic," she said. "But he gets paid for doing injections, and I had good insurance. He not only injected the left. He injected the right."

After months of injections, Caw developed an infection in the left knee. In December 2010, Lewonowski concluded the solution was removal of the left knee and insertion of antibiotics. Her knee would be reinstalled if treatment cleared the infection.

"If he hadn’t diagnosed her as having bilateral osteoarthritis and hadn’t injected her, there would be no infection," said Bretz, who represents Caw in a civil suit against Lewonowski and Via Christi.

Lewonowski pulled the old knee and scheduled her next operation for April 4, 2011, at Via Christi. After that initial knee replacement surgery date was scrubbed, Caw was readmitted April 8, administered anesthesia and wheeled into an operating room.

Lewonowski was met on his way to Caw's surgery by Kansas Medical Society staff member Judy Janes, who ran the state's Medical Advocacy Program for professionals struggling with illness, disability or addiction. Janes was on site in response to a report Lewonowski exhibited erratic behavior two days earlier at the hospital.

He said Janes requested that a drug test be completed by the end of the day. Via Christi administrators went further and proposed he submit to a blood test before launching any surgical procedure. Lewonowski left the hospital. After awakened, Caw learned her operation was called off a second time.

"Parameters of the testing changed and I was advised by counsel to not do the testing and therefore the surgery was canceled," Lewonowski said.

Via Christi suspended his orthopedic privileges April 8, 2011, and the Board of Healing Arts finalized its emergency license suspension April 12, 2011. Caw's knee was inserted at Wesley Medical Center in October of that year.

 

Secrecy is supreme

Bretz, the attorney for Caw, said the Board of Healing Arts' order labeled "confidential" the conduct inviting suspension. Lewonowski's behavior was an "imminent danger to the public health, safety or welfare," but details remain sealed.

Kathleen Selzler Lippert, executive director of the Board of Healing Arts, walked around questions about who benefited most from confidentiality when medical professionals, such as Lewonowski, ran afoul. She said nondisclosure of personal information to the public adhered to legal barriers and respected a "number of competing interests."

She said Lewonowski's conduct was "serious enough in this case for him to be suspended a significant period of time."

Wright, the attorney representing Lewonowski in the three malpractice cases, said state law on nondisclosure was written more than 25 years ago in an attempt to do more than sanction medical professionals. Individuals reporting suspected misconduct may need the cover of statutorial anonymity to protect themselves, he said.

"The expressed purpose of those laws is to improve the health care system," said Wright, who has defended malpractice cases for decades. "The reason the law was enacted was to empower those people to report inappropriate conduct."

The day before the Board of Healing Arts and Via Christi moved on Lewonowski, Dorothy White was scheduled to go under the doctor's knife for a lower-back procedure.

Lewonowski had declined, initially, to perform this surgery until she lost substantial weight. White said Lewonowski invited her to get involved in the "female hormone diet" that he was on. It would have required she receive shots from one of Lewonowski's friends.

However, Lewonowski's opinion about her girth and ineligibility for more back surgery changed without explanation. He insisted White consent to urgent removal of a cyst — no doctor since has recommended the surgery — to alleviate leg pain present since he operated on the Newton woman to fuse vertebrae and install plating Aug. 13, 2010.

"He was going to go in there and have findings to cover all his mistakes," said Wall, who represents White in her lawsuit against Lewonowski. "It was why he was interested in getting in there in a hurry."

An abscessed tooth kept White out of Lewonowski's operating room on the cusp of his suspension.

Dorothy and Craig White continue searching for answers to what might have gone awry during the initial neck surgery. Her ongoing pain, including a burning sensation along the left leg, led her at times to consider amputation and suicide.

"She walked into the hospital unaided by any artificial device," Craig White said. "After the surgery, she had great difficult supporting herself."

 

Impaired spinal cord?

In 2011 and 2012, Dorothy White was examined by specialists. Shortly after Lewonowski's license was suspended, one of those doctors, physician Theo Mellion, put distance between himself and Lewonowski's former patient.

"There's spinal cord damage. I can't see you anymore," White said Mellion told her.

White said doctor Dale Dalenberg decided she had Brown-Sequard syndrome. It was the result, White said, of an instrument impacting her spinal cord. She said Dalenberg told her "it looked like there was a forked object on my spinal cord."

The Whites said they were left to wonder about the significance of an evening visit to Lewonowski's office in 2010 — around the time of her neck surgery — when the smell of alcohol was on the doctor's breath.

As the Weaver, Caw and White lawsuits against Lewonowski crawled forward in February, Lewonowski's attorney filed a motion in district court to limit scope of deposition questions about alcohol and drug use. Wright included in the document details of Lewonowski's battle with liquor and narcotics.

Of his drug siphoning at USC, Lewonowski said he landed in a rehabilitation program for three weeks in Long Beach, Calif. The memo included contents of a 2003 deposition with an exchange between Lewonowski and an attorney about this first USC crisis.

"There was no physical addiction or anything," Lewonowski said. "I call it abuse. It was just a bad reaction to a bad situation."

"Are you an alcoholic?" the lawyer asked.

"Technically, yes, of course. Alcohol is a drug. If you're an addict then you're an alcoholic."

The brief indicates Lewonowski was readmitted to USC's residency program by adhering to the California Medical Board's diversion program. He relapsed in 1992 or 1993 amid a "problem between him and his wife," the document said. He consumed narcotics to counter depression and insomnia. When caught faking the urine test to USC, he went to a facility in Pasadena, Calif.

After moving to Kansas, the brief said, Lewonowski entered a Portland, Ore., center in December 1997 for addiction to narcotic pain medication. He asserted it was triggered by drugs prescribed by a doctor following surgery. Lewonowski attempted to treat his withdrawal with more narcotics and then took Compazine, which is prescribed for nausea and anxiety disorder. He was eventually hospitalized.

His sessions in Oregon lasted four months, and Wright's brief indicated Lewonowski reported his predicament to the Kansas Medical Society.

"I didn't have guys coming to my office and doing the handcuff routine," Lewonowski said. "No illegal prescriptions were ever written. I did not self-prescribe."

He was required by the medical society to submit to random urinalysis for five years.

In 2011, Wright's motion said, Lewonowski testified in a legal proceeding his license was suspended by the state for alcohol abuse but that statement was "actually not correct." His attorney monitoring the deposition advised him to not answer inquiries on that matter, so Lewonowski amended his remarks by saying, "I am not entirely sure how to answer that."

The brief by Wright offered a clarification: "He was stupid when he began using alcohol again in the more recent past. Alcohol was the source of his recent problem with the 2011 suspension."

 

‘Changed 100%’

Wright's document pointed to the consent order issued in April 2012 when the Board of Healing Arts reinstated Lewonowski's medical license. It also outlined confidential "treatment" and "monitoring" requirements that would remain in place until 2017.

"Have I got it under control?" Lewonowski said. "Yes. My life has changed 100 percent. The malpractice guys will say something different. They couldn't be more wrong."

He said publishing a story about his challenges would "hurt people."

"You're going to cause doctors who would otherwise come out to say: 'There's no way I'm coming out. No way am I going to get into recovery.' That's going to drive them underground," Lewonowski said.

He has resumed his surgical career and former patients have found their way back to him.

"I operated on three of them in the last week," the doctor said. "They know the stories. They are coming back to me because they trust me as a surgeon."

Lewonwoski's propensity for abuse of alcohol and drugs, according to available documents, placed the 56-year-old surgeon in treatment or counseling at least four times in his medical career.

"You see common elements that keep arising," said Wichita attorney Thomas Warner, who represents Weaver. "That made us think that this is not an isolated incident. A pervasive problem for him and, therefore, for his patients. He has an impairment issue that the Board of Healing Arts knows about, and they chose not to apparently do anything — at least in the long term."

Federal Court Jury returned a verdict against Promise Regional Medical Center

June 03, 2013

Today a Federal Court Jury returned a verdict against Promise Regional Medical Center (now known as Hutchinson Regional Hospital) for wrongful death of Jackie L. Sarff. Mr. Sarff, who was a resident of Great Bend, Kansas, was a patient at Promise Regional Medical Center in August of 2008 when a licensed practica nurse (LPN) attempted to insert a nasal gastric tube into Mr. Sarff, causing him to vomit and inhale the vomit into his lungs which then led to brain damage and his death five days later. The Plaintiffs, Bonnie Sarff, widow of Mr. Sarff, and Susan Baker, the adult child of Mr. and Mrs. Sarff, alleged that Promise Regional Medical Center did not follow their own policies and procedures or the Kansas Nursing Regulations when they allowed an unqualified and unsupervised LPN to perform the NG tube procedure. It was established at trial that the placement of an NG tube carried the risk of vomiting, aspiration and death if not performed correctly or if the vomit is not quickly removed from a patient's airway with suction equipment. The Jury concluded that the Hospital nurses did not follow the patient safety rules associated with this procedure which caused the death of Mr. Sarff. Thomas Warner of Warner Law Offices in Wichita, Kansas was the attorney for the Sarff family. Mr. Warner reports that the jury returned a verdict in the amount of $1,086,994.60. There was no pretrial offer of settlement. Randy Troutt of Hite, Fanning in Wichita, Kansas was the attorney for Promise Regional Medical Center.

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