An Iowa man was awarded $27 million by a Polk County jury after a medical misdiagnosis left him with permanent brain damage. The local urgent care told him he had the flu and released him from its facility, but they were wrong. He actually had an acute meningitis infection.
On Monday, Nov. 21, the jury found Melanie Choos, the physician assistant at the UnityPoint Health urgent care clinic, negligent when diagnosing Joseph Dudley, a 53-year-old Black man from Des Moines, with influenza.
As a result of the February 2017 misdiagnosis, the man has physical and mental limitations which according to his spouse, Sarah Dudley, prevent him from having a consistently active role in the lives of his young children, according to the Des Moines Register.
The jury awarded the Dudleys $12 million for future loss of full mind and body, $10 million for future pain and suffering based on his life expectancy, $2.5 million for past loss of body and mind function, and $2.5 million for past pain and suffering.
The couple received $2 million more than originally expected.
Nick Rowley, a Decorah-based attorney representing the Dudleys, stated that Choos’ failed to conduct a complete examination and failed to order the appropriate tests to accurately diagnose him.
“This is a fair and just verdict for a man who has severe, permanent brain damage and who is one of tens of thousands of medical malpractice victims that have cases pending in this country,” the lawyer said about the decision.
Rowley added Choos did not have a supervising physician on site that day, which led to “sloppy, substandard medical care.”
“Physician assistants shouldn’t be running clinics on their own without any supervising physician,” Rowley said. “That shouldn’t happen in Iowa, but it is happening in Iowa and because of it, people are getting hurt and people are dying.”
Dudley came home in February 2017 complaining of fatigue and dizziness.
By 7 p.m., he had developed a high fever that prompted his wife to take him to UnityPoint. By the time the couple arrived at the urgent care clinic on Feb. 17, his fever had ballooned to 103.6 degrees, and he became delusional, acting erratic and combative as staff tried to conduct a nasal test.
Other symptoms relayed during the trial were an abnormally high heart rate and tachypnea, or unusually rapid and shallow breathing.
The trial revealed Choos gave Dudley a flu test that came back negative. Still, she diagnosed him with the wrong condition, sending him home with Tamiflu and a recommendation to come back if he didn’t get better in approximately a week.
Rowley contends, “That was a death sentence for Joe.”
The Dudleys left the facility, with the husband being placed in a wheelchair because he was too dizzy to walk and a clinic staff member helping Sarah get her husband into his car.
The wife said, “I had faith in them. I believed them. They’re doctors. They’re supposed to help people. I would never think at an urgent care clinic we would be treated this way.”
Dudley never got better. So, on Feb. 20, 2017, Sarah took her husband to UnityPoint Iowa Methodist Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a severe form of meningitis, one so severe he had to be placed into a medically induced coma.
Physicians said as a result of the infection caused by his meningitis, Dudley suffered three strokes, lost hearing in his right ear, and suffered nerve damage in his right leg. He no longer can walk in a straight line.
He stayed in the intensive care unit for eight days and later moved to the inpatient care unit. He said they had for almost a month, receiving his discharge on March 28, 2017.
Sarah believes her husband was mistreated because of his race, saying when Choos walked into the room to review his case, she asked what illegal drugs Dudley was taking and if he was suffering withdrawal.
At that time, Sarah informed the physician assistant that he did not do drugs. Despite this concern of racial discrimination, it was not mentioned during the trial.
Rowley defended this decision to exclude assumed racial bias from his argument because he had a strong enough case without it.
“It’s not what we argued to the jury, but that’s what we believe may have happened because of statistics and what we know nationally,” the attorney said.
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, UnityPoint Health issued a statement denying Choos’ error was because of racial bias.
The health system representatives wrote, “UnityPoint Health emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in health care.”
“We strive to eliminate racial, economic, and social disparities while improving the health of the people and communities we serve,” it continued. “Our top priority is to provide the best possible care for anyone who needs us, and makes our spaces safe and welcoming for patients, families, and team members.”
On Monday, officials from UnityPoint Health maintained Dudley received the standard of care appropriate for the symptoms he presented at the time.
“We respect the jury process but strongly disagree with this verdict and are exploring all options, including an appeal. We support our providers and clinicians as they make important medical decisions each day,” officials said in a statement. “UnityPoint Clinic remains committed to providing compassionate, personalized care and meeting the highest standards of clinical quality and patient safety.”
Though the couple will be $27 million richer if the award is upheld, and his physical condition has improved over the past five years substantially, Dudley continues to have mood swings, deals with paranoia, and is forever changed.
He has since relearned to walk, moving from his walker and now getting around with a cane. He also relearned to pronounce certain words, feed himself and bathe himself.
Progress is occurring, though it is slow. Still, he is unable to go skating with his 6-year-old daughter, Sarah revealed, something their little girl is struggling to process.
Money or not, Sarah says, “Every day of Joe’s life will be affected by the severe brain damage he has.”