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Two New Lawsuits Allege Surgical Errors During Heart Transplants at St. Luke’s in Houston

In one case, a patient claims a surgeon sewed a major vein closed, causing blood to back up in his head. In the other, a patient alleges that the same surgeon sewed through his colon, filling his abdomen with feces. The lawsuits follow a yearlong investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle.

Lazerick Eskridge is suing St. Luke’s Medical Center, alleging he suffered severe complications after his heart transplant. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle)

This article was produced in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle.

Two new lawsuits have been filed against Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center by patients who say they suffered serious injuries as a result of surgical errors during heart transplants at the troubled Houston hospital.

The suits, both filed Friday in Harris County District Court, bring to five the number of malpractice complaints involving heart transplants that have been leveled against St. Luke’s or its doctors since a Houston Chronicle and ProPublica investigation last year documented deaths and unexpected complications in the once-renowned program.

In August, the federal government cut off Medicare funding for heart transplants at St. Luke’s, citing its failure to make changes needed to improve outcomes. The hospital is appealing.

In one of the lawsuits filed last week, Lazerick Eskridge alleges that Dr. Jeffrey Morgan sewed a major vein closed during his heart transplant in February 2017, causing blood to back up into his head and requiring an emergency repair in the operating room. That led to several serious complications and resulted in a three-month hospital stay, according to the lawsuit.

In the other case, Ronald Coleman alleges that Morgan sutured his colon to his diaphragm during his heart transplant in October 2016, damaging the digestive organ and causing Coleman’s abdomen to fill with feces. That caused serious infections, the lawsuit says, leading to several follow-up surgeries and “nearly costing Mr. Coleman his life.”

Eskridge’s story was detailed in a Chronicle and ProPublica report last year. Coleman’s case has not been made public before now.

Both patients survived their ordeals but continue to suffer debilitating complications, according to their lawsuits.

St. Luke’s and Morgan each declined to comment on the lawsuits, as did Baylor College of Medicine, which is named as a defendant in both cases as Morgan’s employer. In previous interviews, all three have defended the quality of care provided to heart recipients at St. Luke’s.

Hospital leaders also defended Morgan in past statements and interviews, calling him a skilled surgeon who they said had successfully turned the heart program around after a string of deaths in 2015. The hospital’s heart transplant survival rates improved in 2016 and 2017, meeting national benchmarks.

In October, however, after losing Medicare funding, hospital leaders announced they had hired two new heart surgeons, effectively replacing Morgan as leader of the program.

The latest lawsuits come as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services conducts a comprehensive investigation into care provided at St. Luke’s after the recent death of an emergency room patient who received a transfusion of the wrong blood type. Following that mishap and numerous other care lapses reported by the Chronicle and ProPublica over the past year, the hospital announced Monday that it was replacing its president, its chief nursing officer and a top physician.

Even as the hospital seeks to move forward under new leadership, it continues to deal with fallout from the problems in its heart transplant program. Three other lawsuits have already been filed in Harris County on behalf of St. Luke’s patients who died or suffered serious complications after receiving new hearts. The hospital has declined to comment on pending litigation and has filed motions denying wrongdoing in two of the earlier cases; the third doesn’t name the hospital as a defendant.

The two most recent lawsuits accuse Morgan of making technical mistakes with sutures during surgeries. A similar problem occured in one of his first transplant operations after taking over as the top heart transplant surgeon at St. Luke’s in 2016, according to six medical professionals familiar with the case.

In that case, doctors and hospital staffers told reporters that Morgan sewed shut another major vein that carries blood back to the heart, and the patient died a few weeks later. The patient’s family has not filed suit and Morgan has not commented on the situation, citing patient privacy.

In the case of Eskridge, Morgan said in a statement last year that his vein tissue was “severely abnormal” because of past cancer treatments and also was distorted by wires attached to the cardiac devices in his chest. Morgan said he used sutures to reinforce the vein’s connection to the heart, but due to “concern for narrowing,” he had to perform an operation to bypass the vein.

According to Coleman’s lawsuit, he struggled to recover after receiving a new heart in October 2016. More than two weeks passed before an abdominal surgeon discovered what had gone wrong, according to the lawsuit. Part of his colon had to be removed as a result.

Coleman suffered life-threatening infections in the weeks that followed, the lawsuit says. He remained in the hospital for three months.

Because Coleman and Eskridge survived one year after their transplants, both of their surgeries are considered successes based on the main metric used to calculate transplant program mortality rates, and both contribute to the hospital’s claim of improved outcomes in recent years.

The lawsuits, which were filed by separate law firms, both accuse Morgan of omitting key details about what went wrong when filling out operative reports in the patients’ medical files, a violation of protocol that makes it more difficult to provide timely treatment.

Both lawsuits also accuse St. Luke’s of “malicious credentialing” for allowing Morgan to continue operating after receiving complaints from several physicians about his surgical abilities, as reported last year by the Chronicle and ProPublica. At least two cardiologists grew so troubled, they said they began referring some patients to competing hospitals for transplants.

Morgan remains on the faculty at Baylor and still has privileges at St. Luke’s, officials have said. But he no longer holds his previous title as surgical chief of heart transplants at either institution.

Mike Hixenbaugh is an investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Hixenbaugh.

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