Pinnacle, surgeon face new lawsuit in death of patient
By Mark Taylor Post-Tribune correspondent June 30, 2011 3:36PM
Provided photo of photo Dennis and Colleen Dekoekkoek | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 30, 2011 12:53AM
Nearly three years ago, Dennis DeKoekkoek, 51, a DeMotte church organist and married father and grandfather, went to Pinnacle Hospital in Crown Point for what he thought would be routine colostomy reversal surgery.
DeKoekkoek’s physician, surgeon Arsenio Favor of Valparaiso, a shareholder in the for-profit, physician-owned hospital, was scheduled to perform the procedure.
Early on Oct. 24, 2008, DeKoekkoek, who struggled with obesity, arrived with his wife, Colleen DeKoekkoek, at the 18-bed hospital, which then did not staff intensive care or emergency services units. Complications arose after the operation. DeKoekkoek had trouble breathing, bled internally and died six hours after the surgery, but just an hour after being transferred to Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville.
An amended wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit filed last week against Pinnacle and Favor alleges negligence, endangerment and inadequate and substandard post operative care.
DeKoekkoek’s widow, now living in Libertyville, Ill., is seeking unspecified damages in the case. In her 17-page civil lawsuit filed in Lake Superior Court, Colleen DeKoekkoek alleges that Pinnacle “acted maliciously, willfully or wantonly with conscious disregard for probable injury to Dennis ... The defendant’s conduct in this case is reprehensible.”
Colleen DeKoekkoek claims Favor was negligent in operating on her husband in a facility that failed to offer intensive or emergency care services in the event of complications. Through her attorney, Steven Langer of Valparaiso’s Langer & Langer, she cited Favor’s decision to leave her husband and the hospital immediately after surgery, ignore his phone pages from Pinnacle nurses seeking his advice and presence at the hospital and his alleged abandonment of Dennis DeKoekkoek as his condition deteriorated.
Chicago attorney Victor Moldovan, who serves as Pinnacle outside counsel but does not represent the hospital in this lawsuit, said Pinnacle could not comment due to the pending litigation.
“The matter is being handled appropriately,” Modovan said. “The hospital takes safety very seriously and recognizes the obligation it has to patients.”
Favor’s Hammond defense attorney, Kirk Bagrowski, also refused comment on the lawsuit. Favor did not return Post-Tribune telephone calls seeking comment.
Medical review finds problems
In May a medical review panel found that both Pinnacle Hospital and Favor deviated from the standard of care in their treatment of DeKoekkoek, and that their actions contributed to his death. The review panel also referred their findings to state professional licensing organizations to investigate Favor and the hospital to review “the health care provider’s fitness to practice the health care provider’s profession.”
Indiana Medical Licensing Board Director Kristen Kelley said Favor renewed his medical license May 9 but said the board has not yet received the medical review panel’s letter. Kelley said because the licensing board has no investigative powers, complaints and referrals are referred to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office to investigate. If the attorney general finds problems, the licensing board “would schedule a hearing and take action,” she said.
Attorney General spokesman Bryan Corbin said he could neither confirm nor deny that the office is investigating Favor. Corbin said consumer complaints against medical providers are confidential until state investigators find cause and recommend filing a complaint against the provider’s license. He said then his office would prosecute the administrative action before the full medical licensing board, which would decide whether to sanction the providers or take no action.
A troubled history
The suit is not the first legal imbroglio for Favor or Pinnacle. Thirty-seven patients or their families have sued Favor for medical malpractice. The Indiana Patient Compensation Fund has paid five Favor patients $2.4 million in settlements since 1990. Before moving to Northwest Indiana he was tried twice and finally acquitted in a highly publicized 1978 criminal trial in New York City on charges he murdered his wife with a drug that left no traces.
In June 2010 Favor filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection, declaring assets of $1.35 million and liabilities of $932,000. In his filings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Hammond, he said his Pinnacle stock was worth $45,000 and declared annual family income of about $180,000.
DeKoekkoek wasn’t the only patient to die unexpectedly after surgery at Pinnacle. Months before, in 2008, Lowell Realtor Donna Dunham died after spinal surgery there. Pinnacle staff allegedly administered morphine, despite her family’s repeated warnings that she was allergic to the painkiller. The Indiana State Department of Health cleared Pinnacle in an investigation into Dunham’s death, but found the hospital had violated Medicare conditions of participation in DeKoekkoek’s death and demanded changes.
Pinnacle officials did not return Post-Tribune phone calls to determine whether the hospital currently offers intensive care or emergency services.
“Dennis was not transferred for five hours after surgery,” attorney Langer said. “If they (Pinnacle) had no way to stabilize him, they never should have performed surgery on him in the first place.”
After Donna Dunham’s death, former Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Post-Tribune he was concerned about the ability of specialty hospitals to respond to patient complications or emergencies.
“Patients and their families need to know in advance of an emergency or major complication that a specialty hospital is not prepared to deal with critical and often life-threatening situations,” Grassley said then. “Once an emergency happens, it’s too late.”