The single mom made her way by bus to Kings County Hospital, stricken with the fear she was having a heart attack. Doctors in the busy emergency department ordered an EKG and chest X-ray — and gave her a clean bill of health.
First-year resident Dr. James Willis assured Wilkinson that her tests were normal.
“You should take Motrin for pain, and follow up with your doctor,” Willis wrote on her chart.
He was dead wrong.
The chest X-ray, in fact, showed a suspicious, 2-centimeter nodule in Wilkinson’s right lung. The radiologist had recommended in his written report that Wilkinson have a followup X-ray in three months, and if “clinical concern warrants, a CT scan is suggested.”
Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News
When Wilkinson returned to the ER in spring 2012 — wheezing and short of breath — a new chest X-ray was taken. It showed the nodule was cancerous, had more than doubled in size and spread to her left lung.
Now the diagnosis was Stage 4 lung cancer — and it had metastasized to her liver, spine and brain.
As Wilkinson’s lung cancer galloped unchecked for more than two years, Kings County doctors botched her care, offering her cough medicines, inhalers and steroids in the blind belief that her ailments were caused by her longstanding asthma.
“I was shocked. I was told I had six months to a year to live,” the former home health aide told the Daily News in an emotional interview in her public housing apartment in Brooklyn.
Breaking down in tears as she spoke about her only child, a severely retarded and autistic 15-year-old daughter, Wilkinson sobbed, “She is going to be left without a mother. What is going to happen to my little girl?”
As if a diagnosis of terminal metastatic cancer wasn’t horrible enough, there was one more bombshell to be dropped on Wilkinson — she probably could have been cured.
Dr. Gary Briefel, the attending physician on call when Wilkinson was in the hospital in May 2012, broke the stunning news to her about the findings on the February 2010 chest X-ray, and that she had a chance to live.
Jeff Bachner/for New York Daily News
Laverne Wilkinson (seated center), at church with (left to right) Valerie Thompson, Angie Hansen, Linsey Morris, Kim Call and Mara Kofoed.
“I spoke to the patient about the fact that she had a chest X-ray in Feb 2010 while she was in the ED that showed a nodule that probably represented an earlier stage of what we now know is Squamous Cell Cancer,” Briefel wrote.
“I told her that apparently nobody saw the report, which suggested either repeating the X-ray or getting a CT scan. I told her that it was not clear whether earlier diagnosis would have led to a cure, since many lung cancers by the time they are seen on a CXR (chest X-ray) have already spread, but that it was possible that a surgical cure could have been achieved.”
Wilkinson recalled the doctor giving her a hug and apologizing.
Reached at home by The News, Briefel said he remembered Wilkinson vividly, but he was not at liberty to talk without the hospital’s permission.
“Everyone felt terrible about what has happened,” said Briefel, who did the honorable thing of documenting the error in her chart.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation — which oversees Kings County Hospital — declined comment, citing possible litigation.
“It’s mortifying,” said Judith Donnel, Wilkinson’s attorney. “No one looked at the radiology report for more than two years. And over those same two years, her primary care doctors at Kings County clinics ordered all these drugs that were breathing-related but never ordered another chest X-ray or pulmonary-function test. Her life could have been saved.”
Donnel has filed a Notice of Claim, the first step in a potential lawsuit against the city. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25. The claim seeks monetary damages for severe injuries, pain and suffering inflicted upon Wilkinson “as a result of the carelessness, recklessness, negligence and medical malpractice” at Kings County Hospital.
Emergency Room doctors tell Brooklyn mom her chest x-ray was normal and sent her home.
“If you find a lung cancer early, before it has invaded lymph nodes, the cure rate is 75%,” said Dr. Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at the Yale School of Medicine. “Once it spreads, a cure doesn’t exist.”
Wilkinson, now 41, is growing weaker. She told The News her head and back often hurt, and she is not able to do as much as she did before the cancer spread. Just last week, she was hospitalized for five days for a blood clot that developed in her lung.
With very little family in the city, she is sustained by one aunt and members of her church, who have taken her and her daughter, Micalia, under their wing.
It was a church member, a tax professor at Brooklyn Law School, who suggested she speak with a medical malpractice lawyer when he learned of Wilkinson’s plight.
“I am just going to say there is no amount of money in the world,” Wilkinson said, her voice cracking with emotion. “If someone was to give me a choice between having money or having my life back and my health back, I would choose my health and having my life back for the sake of this beautiful, little girl.
“Doctors need to be more careful and realize they have the lives of their patients in their hands,” she added. “They are human and do make mistakes. If it were a mistake where I was going to lose a lung and still live, then I could deal with that.”
But Wilkinson wasn’t given that chance.
Now, as she measures her days, Wilkinson thinks only of the girl she has devoted her entire life to. Micalia doesn’t speak, and is a physical handful as she gets older and stronger. She is dependent on her mother for every aspect of her life. Wilkinson said she has appointed a guardian for Micalia, but church friends say she worries her daughter may end up in an institution without her round-the-clock devotion and singular love.
Wilkinson’s great source of comfort has been the congregation at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Park Slope. One member, Mara Kofoed, has known her for 10 years. Along with other congregants, she has accompanied Wilkinson to her chemotherapy treatments in hopes of slowing the disease, and has brought the family dinner as Wilkinson struggles with her health.
“Laverne is just one of the most loving people I ever met,” said Kofoed, 35, as the two shared a warm moment at a recent Christmas church service. “She is incredibly patient, just loves her daughter to no end. That woman is full of wisdom, and strength and peace.
“What has happened to her is heart-wrenching. It’s heartbreaking to think of her having to let go of Micalia.”
Wilkinson said she decided to go public with her tragedy to “help prevent this from ever happening to anyone else.” Looking sullen and resigned, she added, “This may be my last Christmas with my daughter.”
Reviewing Wilkinson’s medical records, it is unclear how many doctors failed her and how such a lethal lapse could have happened. What is clear is that the ER’s first-year resident Willis — and the attending Dr. Antonia Quinn — told Wilkinson she was fine and discharged her around noon on Feb. 2, 2010. Radiologist resident Dr. Driss Raissi and attending Dr. Russell Areman’s final report documenting the nodule in her right lung was written at 2 p.m. — two hours after Wilkinson went home.
In his May 18, 2012, chart note, written after his bedside visit with Wilkinson, Dr. Briefel promised a shattered Wilkinson that a thorough review of her case would be undertaken “with the goal of finding ways to improve how we provide care and that the hospital would let her know the results of the investigation.”
It has been nearly eight months. Wilkinson has never heard a word from administrators or doctors at Kings County Hospital.