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Bungled Pap test brings big verdict

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

By Lawrence Walsh

Kathy Griffin’s Pap smear test in 1986 indicated abnormal cells, according to the laboratory that analyzed it.

But her doctor didn’t tell her about the analysis until two years later, when another Pap test showed that she had cervical cancer.

Her advice to other women in dealing with their doctors:
“Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions.”

Griffin, 38, a Mercer County widow with a teen-age daughter, had to undergo a radical hysterectomy at Roswell Memorial Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1988. The operation left her unable to bear children.

In a 10-2 decision last weekend, a Common Pleas jury of 11 men and one woman ordered Drs. Donald Beck, a gynecologist, and Roger Hawkins and Peter Sotus, both pathologists, and Greenville Regional Hospital to pay Griffin $1.25 million. It is one of the largest medical malpractice verdicts ever awarded in Mercer County.

Beck’s attorney, Christopher Rulis of Pittsburgh, said he would file exceptions to the verdict tomorrow. That frequently is the first step of an appeal to the Superior Court. Attorney John M. McLaughlin of Erie and his clients- Hawkins, Sotus, and the hospital- declined comment.

“It’s a great verdict and a deserving one,” said Griffin’s attorney, Neil R. Rosen of Pittsburgh. “Kathy has gone through a tremendous amount of grief because of this, and it all could have been avoided.”

Rosen filed a petition last week asking Judge Michael J. Wherry, who presided over the five- day trial, to order the defendants to pay Griffin approximately $250,000 in delay damages for failing to make a reasonable effort to settle the case. The judge said he would review the petition this week.

A Papanicolaou, or “Pap” test is done to detect cancer of the cervix or lining of the uterus. A specimen of tissue is stained and examined under a microscope for the presence of abnormal cells.

Cervical cancer rates have declined sharply during the past four decades among young women who have regular Pap tests.

However, women 64 and older, who constitute 14 percent of the U.S. female population, develop 25 percent of new cases of cervical cancer and 41 percent of deaths from the disease, researchers say. One reason may be that women are less likely to have regular gynecological checkups after their childbearing years.
Griffin, whose husband was killed in an accident in 1980 when she was pregnant with their daughter, Saree, was a regular patient of Beck’s and had annual Pap smears taken in his office.

The test results were all normal until March 1986, when the Pennsylvania Diagnostic Center in Monroeville reported that year’s Pap smear was abnormal. Beck asked Griffin to return for another Pap smear, but didn’t use the word “abnormal” in describing the first test results.

“I didn’t think that much of [the second test],” she said. “I trusted him.”

Beck sent the second Pap test smears to Hawkins and Sotus at Greenville Hospital and noted on a medical form that Griffin’s first test results were abnormal. A pathologist, not a lab technician, is supposed to review the Pap smear when a previous test has indicated an abnormality, Rosen said.
Sotus didn’t see Beck’s note and, in 1987, neither did Hawkins. Both signed off on a lab technician’s report that the results were normal. Her 1988 Pap test showed that Griffin had “invasive cancer,” Rosen said.

“When [Hawkins and Sotus] reviewed their 1986 and 1987 paperwork on Kathy, they realized what had happened. This thing could have been nipped in the bud if they had paid attention to what they were doing,” Rosen said.

Griffin, a secretary, said she still had problems related to the hysterectomy but declined to elaborate. At this point, “she has a good statistical chance for survival,” her attorney said.

“I don’t think enough women realize they have to ask questions of their doctors,” Griffin said. “And if they’re not satisfied with the answers, ask more questions.”

“I wish I had.”