ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ten years ago this month, Patricia Rue woke up from what was supposed to be minimally invasive spine surgery and found herself in hell.
“I was in so much pain, I was screaming, ‘Please help me.’ What was going on, I didn’t know. But I knew that my body felt like it was on fire.”
A decade later, a federal bankruptcy judge has put a dollar amount on the pain, suffering, loss and disability Rue experiences to this day from the disastrous and untested bone cement spinal treatment – $2.3 million.
U.S. Bankruptcy Chief Judge Robert H. Jacobvitz of Albuquerque awarded three other former patients another $10 million in damages, after finding that Quorum Health Resources of Tennessee breached its duty to prevent harm to patients at Gerald Champion Regional Hospital in Alamogordo from 2007 to 2008.
The damage assessment against Quorum, which supplied top executives for the hospital, is the first time in the protracted litigation that a judge has determined the amount of harm suffered by individual plaintiffs.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s taken many years, and it’s good to see things resolved,” said Rue, who lives with her husband outside Ruidoso. “But it doesn’t change anything in our lives, physically, mentally and healthwise.”
There are dozens more former patients whose cases are still pending. Unless there is a settlement, they will have to endure a trial to assess their individual damages.
Some are more injured than others. Some are so frail they may not make it to court. Several have died waiting.
All, like Rue, unwittingly put their trust in the small Alamogordo hospital, its corporate manager, and two physicians who once touted the money-making hot bone cement treatment as a new way to ease back pain.
“Our entire group of clients are extremely grateful that by his verdicts, Judge Jacobvitz has recognized the extent that their lives were so devastated by what was done to them a decade ago in Alamogordo,” said attorney Greig Coates. Quorum, through its attorney, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Rue, 64, recalled how scared she was after her bone cement surgery in 2008. She couldn’t stand up, because she was numb.
Even now, she told the Journal, “there are times that I wake up in the morning, and say, ‘One day, if I had one day without pain, it would be a great day.’ One day with less pain would be a great day, but I don’t have that.”
Patient malpractice and negligence claims, which grew to nearly 80 over the years, forced the hospital to seek bankruptcy court protection in 2011. A partial settlement involving the physicians, Christian Schlicht and Frank Bryant, and the hospital totalled more than $33 million. But for years, Quorum resisted settling the cases. In late 2016, Jacobvitz determined that the hospital management firm was 16.5 percent culpable for its negligence.
Last summer, the judge held a trial to assess damages, beginning with four of the former patients. Quorum attorneys argued that their pain, numbness, weakness and other debilitating symptoms were the result of prior back problems – not the bone cement injections.
But Jacobvitz, in his ruling on Jan. 30, concluded that the pre-existing conditions were aggravated by the harmful cement treatments and that the four were entitled to damages that reflected the extent of the aggravation.
Earlier evidence in the case showed that Quorum’s CEOs at the 99-bed hospital had been warned by two outside physicians in 2007 that the bone cement treatments were dangerous and that the inventor, Schlicht, wasn’t qualified to perform spinal surgeries. But the spinal procedures continued through late 2008, when Schlicht resigned over a pay dispute. Bryant, an orthopedic surgeon, is now working in Roswell.
“There’s anger we all feel and the distress,” Rue said. “It’s not just directed at one person. There were so many involved in this. It was a doctor and his partner who were going to make a lot of money, and then the hospital, and they turned and looked the other way. They didn’t care. They don’t care about us.”
Rue, who first developed back problems in 2000 after working at her family’s fruit stand and gift shop outside Ruidoso, relies on her family for support.
“There are days I wake up and I say, ‘OK, I’m having a pity party today’ and my husband Gary (Rue) will say, ‘OK, you’re entitled’ and I’ll cry and feel sorry for myself wondering how did I get to this point? I’m not supposed to be here like this.”
She said she is too afraid to have surgery to remove the cement.
“Even now, when I get a different pain or something that doesn’t feel quite right, all those things scare me. Because I don’t know what this stuff is doing inside me. Is it shattered or has it moved? If any of this stuff breaks, it could cause more damage. I still have mobility, but it’s limited. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair. I’m scared.”
Over the years of court hearings and meetings with attorneys, Rue said she has seen the deterioration in other former patients. Some who once walked unaided are now in wheelchairs.
“Am I seeing anybody getting better? No. Are we all looking for help? Yes. Are we being turned away by some doctors, because some doctors will not touch any of us because they don’t want to be part of this? Yes.”
Last year, when Rue testified about her condition in court, sitting in the audience was Edna Morton, who lives with her husband, Royce, near Las Cruces.
Several months earlier in Houston, Morton underwent spinal surgery to try to ease her pain from the bone cement treatment. Her post-surgical X-rays showed an extensive attempt at spine reconstruction, including the insertion of metal supports.
Morton, 82, told the Journal on Friday that she hopes she will be among those selected for the next damages trial.
“I think they need to hear my story,” she said. ” I’d like to tell them how I have suffered and am still suffering. It’s been a tough row to hoe.”