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Patient accuses UCLA medical center of malpractice

Russel Farnsworth said he struggled for eight years with back pains, which he attributes to a surgery he had in 2009 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center (Kristen Payne/Daily Bruin)

By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde

May 4, 2016 1:01 a.m.

Russel Farnsworth went to work every morning with his head pounding. He sat at his desk and tried to push through the pain, only to stand and feel as though he had pinched nerves along his spine.

A couple months later, he was fired for taking too many days off to receive medical help.

Farnsworth said he struggled for eight years with intensified back pains, which he attributes to a surgery he had in 2009 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. After UCLA dismissed his case, claiming he had appropriate care, he resorted to independently protesting outside of the hospital to inform patients about the complications he faced.

“Going (into the surgery) I had 100 percent confidence,” he said. “But after (I reported complications from the surgery), the doctor became dismissive. I never got any answers.”

After the surgery, Farnsworth experienced an infection, increased back pain and headaches. About two years later, he learned his surgeon Dr. Duncan McBride had not placed a spacer in his back, as he had asked.

In 2010, Farnsworth requested medical records from the hospital to gather evidence for a lawsuit against the medical center. Farnsworth said hospital officials repeatedly told him the documents did not exist.

He eventually received the records in 2015, including his post-operative magnetic resonance imaging scans, which Farnsworth said showed his spine was less aligned than it was before the surgery.

In a letter to Farnsworth, the medical center acknowledged the records arrived in November 2015, but did not comment on why they were delayed. Farnsworth said he thinks the hospital purposefully delayed his requests to hide its mistakes.

LaGuan Hayes, Farnsworth’s friend and an X-ray technician for five years, said he was surprised the hospital neglected to give Farnsworth the documents. He added he thinks it’s easy to retrieve medical documents for patients, based on his work experience in a radiology center.

“I have never heard of images going missing,” Hayes said. “That just seems like (the hospital is) sidestepping the job.”

David Bradford, a medical expert for the Michels and Lew law firm, which specializes in medical malpractice cases, said it is common for hospitals to move medical documents to the risk management department if they suspect there will be a litigation.

The hospital similarly delayed delivering some records to the Lew law firm in 2009, when a family sued the hospital for negligent care after its 17-year-old daughter slipped into a coma during a routine procedure, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

In 2011, Farnsworth had his surgery redone at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, paying $7,000 for the procedure and other medical expenses. He added it took him two years to save up vacation time and find a doctor he trusted after the traumatic experience, but he decided to move forward and try to remedy the issue instead of letting his spine fuse incorrectly.

“I wanted to make sure I got surgery before it fused on its own (unaligned).” he said. “(I knew) I might bend or turn a certain way and pinch a nerve that would have me off my feet for a week. I didn’t want to live that way, where I could have my whole life interrupted.”

Farnsworth said the Cedars-Sinai hospital workers took precautions against infection that employees at the UCLA medical center neglected to take. He said he was instructed to wash his body with anti-microbial body wash the night before the operation. The next morning, nurses washed his entire body again with antiseptic towelettes, he added.

Before the procedure, Farnsworth’s surgeon at Cedars-Sinai discovered McBride did not place the spacer Farnsworth requested in Farnsworth’s spine. A spacer is an instrument placed between two vertebrae after the removal of a spinal disc.

Farnsworth said he made it clear to McBride he thought a spacer would help his spine fuse together in the right alignment, and McBride agreed. Farnsworth added he thinks some of his pain is caused by pinched nerves between vertebrae, which could have been prevented by the spacer. Every doctor he has consulted recommended the device.

McBride said in an email the hospital’s legal counsel advised him against discussing specific patient details or acknowledging he was Farnsworth’s surgeon, in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The policy prohibits public disclosure of medical records or history.

McBride added Farnsworth’s medical malpractice claims have no legal basis.

Hayes said Farnsworth’s condition improved after his second surgery, but Farnsworth can no longer play the guitar because it hurts too much to stand.

Farnsworth said he still hopes to seek compensation from the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, but understands it is less likely with every day that goes by. He added he has asked several doctors to evaluate his case, but they are unwilling to comment against UCLA.

Some family members who work in healthcare have even distanced themselves from commenting on his case, Farnsworth said.

“No one who works in the medical field wants to get involved,” he said. “They just want to put on blinders and pretend nothing bad ever happens (in hospitals), and that’s really disappointing.”

Jin Lew, one of the lawyers Farnsworth contacted, said it is difficult for people to get compensation for medical malpractice cases because lawyers often take only high-level cases with clear damages.

Now, Farnsworth uses online campaigning to inform patients at UCLA of his experience. He has also connected with other patients who have had similar problems on Craigslist, Facebook and through his own website, which he uses to advocate for patient safety at the UCLA medical center.

Farnsworth said he will continue to protest in front of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, but otherwise plans to make the most of the rest of his life. Looking back, he said he realized how much money he spent on treatment and hospital visits.

“I’ve taken money out of my savings and spent $7,000 on treatments that didn’t work,” he said. “I want to live my life for the now, spend money on visiting friends and enjoy my life as much as I can.”

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Alejandra Reyes-Velarde | News editor
Reyes is the Daily Bruin's News editor and an Editorial Board member. Previously, she was the Science & Health editor covering research, the UCLA health system and graduate school news. She also writes Arts & Entertainment stories and photographs for the Bruin.
Reyes is the Daily Bruin's News editor and an Editorial Board member. Previously, she was the Science & Health editor covering research, the UCLA health system and graduate school news. She also writes Arts & Entertainment stories and photographs for the Bruin.
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