A “cascade of errors” turned what should have been a short surgical procedure into an hours-long ordeal resulting in the patient’s death, according to a Jackson County lawsuit filed this week against the surgeon and Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City.
Also named as defendants is the hospital’s parent, Saint Luke’s Health System Inc., and the affiliated Mid-America Heart and Lung Surgeons. That firm formerly employed the doctor who performed the operation early this year, Justin Van Meeteren of Overland Park.
In the lawsuit, Alexander J. Hess of Merriam claims his father, 61-year-old James Hess, went to Saint Luke’s on Feb. 1 for replacement of an aortic valve as treatment for a longstanding heart condition.
Van Meeteren was the surgeon scheduled to perform the operation that morning using a minimally invasive technique that would not require him to open the chest cavity. The repair was to be done via a small incision through the armpit, a procedure that James Hess was told had a 99 percent chance of success, according to medical records reviewed by a consultant for the law firm handling the case for Alexander Hess.
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The 36-year-old Van Meeteren had never performed the procedure on his own, the suit alleges. And despite the suggestions of other surgeons that he have a more experienced doctor assist him, Van Meeteren “consciously chose to ignore the sound advice,” the suit says.
Attorney Louis Accurso, who represents Alexander Hess and formerly employed James Hess as an investigator, alleges in the lawsuit that mistakes began when Van Meeteren allegedly failed to follow the instructions for installing the replacement heart valve.
Van Meeteren could not be reached for comment on Friday. Records show him licensed to practice in Missouri and Kansas. Officials at the board of healing arts in both states said he is not facing disciplinary action.
He is no longer associated with Mid-America Heart and Lung Surgeons, administrator Colleen Smith said, and referred other questions to Saint Luke’s, which issued the following statement:
“Saint Luke’s is committed to delivering high quality, compassionate and expert care. We are also committed to operating transparently and in the best interests of our patients and their families at all times. Since we haven’t had the opportunity to review the filed petition in this matter, we aren’t able to comment at this time, but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time and place.”
According to the suit, the surgery went on “swimmingly” at first, quoting a Saint Luke’s risk manager.
But complications arose. After exceeding the 90-minute time limit for the procedure to be done safely, Van Meeteren attempted to complete the surgery with a minimal opening in the chest rather than immediately opening up the chest entirely.
That was a mistake, a medical expert hired by Accurso alleges, and other errors allegedly followed.
The suit says the surgical team became “ ‘uncomfortable with what was going on,’ but failed to summon help with the situation.”
At some point, however, Saint Luke’s risk management department was concerned enough to start an investigation even before the operation was over, the lawsuit says.
Finally, 11 hours after the operation started, Hess was moved from the operating room to the intensive care unit, Accurso said a review of hospital records show.
Hess never woke up and died two days later after he was removed from the machines that kept him alive.