In September 2015, Wendy Berner went to the University of Kansas Hospital for a complex procedure to remove parts of several organs. She was told she had pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
According to a lawsuit filed last month, Berner discovered after the procedure that she never had cancer. She allegedly found out neither from her KU surgeon, nor from Meenakshi Singh, the doctor who misdiagnosed her. The suit states she read about it in a business publication, which reported another KU doctor said his colleagues were trying to cover up the mistake.
“Wendy Ann Berner is the person who had to read a news article in order to discover the grave medical mistakes that will affect her for the rest of her life,” the suit says.
Singh, who was chairwoman of the pathology department at the time, was not certified in cytopathology, the science of diagnosing disease on the cellular level. A review by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found Singh was not qualified by KU’s own internal standards to make Berner’s diagnosis. And now the doctor, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, has let her license lapse and is no longer eligible to practice medicine in Kansas.
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Berner’s lawyer, Chad Beaver, said Berner, who lives in Shawnee, “looks forward to the opportunity to share her story, but she does not plan to comment further at this time beyond what is already alleged in the detailed lawsuit we filed on August 1.”
In addition to Singh, the suit filed in Wyandotte County names the University of Kansas Hospital Authority; the University of Kansas Medical Center; the University of Kansas Physicians group; and Berner’s surgeon, Timothy Schmitt, as defendants.
Attorneys for KU, Singh and Schmitt have filed responses disputing the allegations of medical malpractice and cover-up, saying they could constitute defamation if not part of a legal action.
Attempts to reach Singh failed. Although she is no longer licensed to practice medicine in Kansas, she’s still listed as a faculty member in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, the academic side of the medical complex.
An email sent to her medical center account bounced back with an “address not found” message. Her home in Leawood, as listed in the lawsuit, is pending sale. A phone number associated with that address in online directories has been disconnected.
The attorney representing Singh in the suit, Scott Logan, did not return a phone message.
KU officials have not said why Singh, who is no longer department chairwoman, was given privileges in cytopathology without the board certification.
Hospital spokesman Dennis McCulloch declined to comment on that, but released a statement saying patient care is the hospital’s top priority.
“We need to be respectful of patient privacy and confidentiality, and because of that we are limited in what we can say on this matter,” McCulloch said. “That said, we do believe that our physicians and staff acted appropriately and with the best interests of our patient in mind.”
According to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, Singh’s medical license expired on Aug. 1. McCulloch said via email that she “does not maintain hospital privileges at the University of Kansas Hospital.”
Singh remains licensed to practice in Colorado. She’s had a physician’s license there since 1998 and renewed it in May, according to Colorado’s licensing board. She listed the KU Medical Center as her professional address on that license.
Kay Hawes, a spokeswoman for the academic medical center, said Singh “is a professor employed at the university working on a pathology research project.”
The Star passed questions about Singh’s licensure through Hawes Wednesday, but as of Thursday, Hawes said Singh had not responded.
According to the Mayo Clinic, pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose because it’s difficult to differentiate between it and pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
According to Berner’s suit, Singh’s misdiagnosis led to Berner undergoing the “Whipple procedure,” a surgery that includes removal of part of the pancreas, the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct. A 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the surgery had a 3.8 percent to 16.3 percent death rate, depending on the hospital and the experience of the surgeon. Potential complications include infections, bleeding and digestive problems.
Examination of the removed body parts after Berner’s surgery revealed that there was no cancer. The suit says Singh tried to cover up the misdiagnosis by adding incorrect information to Berner’s medical records that would have supported a cancer diagnosis and lobbying to change internal quality review documents.
The suit says that Lowell Tilzer, the previous chairman of the pathology department, pushed for an analysis of the changes to Berner’s records and to inform Berner of the misdiagnosis. After that was denied, Tilzer reported the incident to the Joint Commission, a hospital oversight agency.
Tilzer was allegedly berated by KU Hospital President and CEO Bob Page for taking the case outside the hospital system. Tilzer filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging retaliation last year.
Berner’s lawsuit says that after the federal Medicare agency began its review, her KU surgeon asked her to sign an affidavit attesting to the “wonderful” treatment she received at the hospital. That made her suspicious and after an online search she discovered Tilzer’s lawsuit and deduced that she was the unnamed patient in it.
Tilzer has since dropped his suit, saying he was satisfied once Berner knew what had happened.