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Medical Victim Takes On Malpractice Reform

Woman Scarred by Unneeded Mastectomies Speaks Up Against Limits On Jury Awards

Feb 4, 2003 | AP Linda McDougal relives the medical mistake every morning when she wakes up and sees the 31 inches of scarred incisions across her chest.

The 46-year-old accountant thought she had cancer when she agreed to the double mastectomy. Only later did she learn that the cancerous tissue tested had come from another woman, and her own breasts had been cancer-free.

The discovery has left McDougal bewildered, angry, and on a mission to prevent the government from setting a price on her pain.

"It looks like the 'Night of the Living Dead,'" she says. "I'm alone in the morning, and that's when I shed most of my tears."

McDougal underwent the surgery after doctors told her in May that she had an aggressive form of cancer, based on a biopsy done after a spot showed up on her mammogram.

But McDougal, who chose the most radical of treatment options, didn't have cancer. A lab mix-up had confused her tissue with another woman's.

McDougal, of Woodville, Wis., was bedridden for three months after the surgery. She and her husband, Jerry, say that knowing it was all for nothing only intensifies the lingering pain.

"I was flabbergasted that they didn't have safeguards against that," Jerry McDougal said. "This is such a stupid mistake that it is almost criminal."

Linda McDougal said she suffered silently until she learned about attempts to limit jury awards in medical malpractice suits. Angry, she came forward two weeks ago the day President Bush unveiled such a proposal.

Bush's plan would limit noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering to $250,000, and punitive damages to twice actual losses, up to a cap of $250,000. He argues that malpractice lawsuits are damaging the nation's health care system and costing the federal government billions of dollars.

"Picking a number out of the air and saying, 'That's fair?' That's ludicrous," Jerry McDougal said.

Linda McDougal has embraced a role as a spokeswoman against limitations to jury awards. Last week, she traveled to Washington to meet with the Center for Justice and Democracy, an activist group that opposes the president's plan.

In preparation for a possible lawsuit, she has retained the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which helped Minnesota win a multibillion-dollar settlement from tobacco companies.

"I think (medical mistakes) happen more than people think," she said. "I have to speak up for people who can't speak for themselves. The doctors that did this to me weren't held accountable, while I am permanently scarred."

The McDougals said they feel her surgeon was forthright and concerned after learning of the mistake. But they added that the hospital apologized only through the media, and that two doctors and a technician involved in the laboratory mix-up have not apologized at all.

United Hospital in St. Paul, where the double mastectomy was performed, would not comment Friday. Hospital Pathology Associates, which handled the pathology work for United and has announced changes in its laboratory procedures since McDougal's misdiagnosis, did not return a call.

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