A man who thought he would be dead within six months after being incorrectly diagnosed with brain cancer at the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center has been awarded $59,820 for the grief and stress it caused him and his family.
In documents filed this week, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy wrote that Mark Templin and his family’s distress was caused by Dr. Patrick Morrow’s “negligent failure to meet the standard of care” while Templin was a patient of Morrow’s at the VA.
“It is difficult to put a price tag on the anguish of a man wrongly convinced of his impending death,” Molloy wrote. “Mr. Templin lived for 148 days … under the mistaken impression that he was dying of metastatic brain cancer.”
Molloy noted that at one point, Templin considered suicide so that his family wouldn’t have to watch him wither away.
The case began on Jan. 28, 2009, when Templin arrived at the VA northwest of Helena complaining of acute chest pain. He had a stent inserted and appeared to be recovering well, but a week later he developed problems with his memory, vision and speech, and was having headaches.
Morrow, an internist at the VA, referred Templin to an ophthalmologist, who suspected Templin had suffered a stroke and recommended a CT scan, which was administered. The scan showed brain abnormalities, which Morrow discussed with a neuroradiologist, who told him Templin could be suffering from a variety of diagnoses, including a brain tumor or a stroke.
The neuroradiologist added that further diagnostic testing was needed be more definitive. However, later that day, Morrow met with the VA’s tumor board and presented the case as a strong suspicion of brain cancer, but apparently didn’t mention that it could have been a stroke, according to court documents.
Morrow testified that he told Templin and his family that his “greatest fear” was brain cancer and that further diagnostics were needed, and that he advised Templin to undergo an MRI.
However, Molloy wrote that there was no indication in Templin’s medical records that Morrow suggested any further diagnostic workup and that Templin and his family understood that he had brain cancer and was expected to die within six months.
Molloy wrote that one of Templin’s daughters asked Morrow how her father would die and “he explained one of the tumors would grow ‘like cauliflower’ and Templin would die from a brain bleed.”
They talked about cancer treatment, but after learning that it would only ease his pain and not cure him, Templin decided that he didn’t want to sacrifice the “quality of his life for any potential increase in quantity,” according to court documents.
Templin was prescribed two drugs used to treat brain cancer, one of which is not supposed to be given to stroke patients. He also was ordered hospice care, which is for terminally ill patients not expected to live longer than six months.
He sold his truck, quit his job and put his affairs in order, which included prominently displaying a “Do Not Resuscitate” notice on his refrigerator so any emergency medical responders would let him die. His family held a “last birthday” dinner from him and he arranged and paid for his funeral service. His son-in-law made a wooden box for his ashes.
Molloy wrote that after Templin’s discharge in February 2009, hospice records say he was “very depressed and preoccupied with his diagnosis.” Templin testified at a recent court hearing that he cried often and considered shooting himself to spare his family from going through the pain and distress associated with his diagnosed terminal illness.
“While under the impression that he was afflicted with metastatic brain cancer, Mr. Templin wondered each day whether it would be his last,” Molloy wrote.
Yet he started feeling better, and in June he terminated hospice care. In July, he underwent additional testing at Fort Harrison, and this time a doctor told him the CT scan showed multiple small strokes, but no brain cancer. An MRI in December 2009 confirmed that it was a stroke, not brain cancer, that caused his symptoms earlier in the year.
Molloy wrote that Faust Alvarez, the chief of staff at the VA at the time, sent Templin a letter confirming that he suffered a stroke, not brain cancer, although Faust later testified that the statements weren’t an admission of fault or that the diagnosis was faulty.
“Dr. Alvarez’s testimony regarding investigation and fault is not credible,” Molloy added. “The letter intended to communicate and actually did communicate an acceptance of fault by Fort Harrison VA Medical Center for the misdiagnosis of Mark Templin.”
Molloy decided to award $500 per day for the initial period of severe mental and emotional distress from Feb. 4, 2009 to April 15, 2009, and $300 per day for the latter period until his new diagnosis. He also ordered the VA to repay Templin for the cost of his “last” birthday celebration and for the prearranged funeral service.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings, which represents the VA, said they have 30 days to decide whether to file an appeal and hadn’t made a decision yet on whether to do so.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron