Judge dismisses Jehovah's Witness' 'wrongful life' lawsuit vs. Staten Island doctor and University Hospital

Staten Island Advance/August 08, 2011

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- She received a life-saving blood transfusion when complications arose after she gave birth to a healthy boy.

Even so, Nancy DiGeronimo, a Jehovah's Witness, sued her doctor and Staten Island University Hospital for medical malpractice alleging the transfusions of another person's blood conflicted with her religious beliefs.

But a Staten Island justice has dismissed the 5-year-old case against Dr. Allen Fuchs and University Hospital, ruling the transfusion didn't deviate from accepted standards of care and that Ms. DiGeronimo had failed to show the infusion of someone else's blood had hurt her.

Ms. DiGeronimo, then 34, was released from the hospital on April 9, 2004, five days after giving birth.

"The plaintiff's argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is that the doctor should have allowed her [the mother of two children] to die rather than give her an 'allogenic' blood transfusion," state Supreme Court Justice Joseph J. Maltese wrote in a decision handed down Thursday. "Since the plaintiff's transfusion saved her life, this action is analogous to one for 'wrongful life' against the doctor. However, there is no cause of action for 'wrongful life' in the state of New York.

"In this case, there is no departure from good and acceptable medical care and there is no proximate cause of a legally recognized injury."

Dr. Fuchs' lawyer, Irene Ziegler of the Bloomfield-based firm of Amabile & Erman, said she was "happy" for him.

"I think the judge made the correct decision," she said on Friday.

Ms. DiGeronimo's attorney and a hospital spokeswoman did not immediately return phone messages left Friday seeking comment.

The lawsuit was filed in state Supreme Court, St. George, in 2006.

According to court papers, Ms. DiGeronimo said she chose Dr. Fuchs, a New Dorp-based obstetrician-gynecologist, and University Hospital because they offered bloodless medical and surgical procedures and "cell-saver technology." That procedure collects blood cells from a patient which otherwise would be lost during surgery, processes the cells and re-infuses them into the patient.

A Jehovah's Witness, Ms. DiGeronimo was firmly opposed to receiving "allogenic" blood products, or those derived from another patient, said court papers. She signed a health-care proxy in 1995 explicitly directing she not receive any "allogenic" blood transfusions.

She said she would have accepted an "autologous" transfusion derived from her own blood.

Ms. DiGeronimo never provided the hospital with any of her own blood, nor had she been advised to do so for possible future use. However, because she was already pregnant when she first saw Dr. Fuchs in September 2003 she wasn't a candidate to donate her own blood for storage, court records said.

Ms. DiGeronimo went to the hospital on April 3, 2004, with vaginal bleeding and early onset labor. She was given an antibiotic to fight an infection and medicine to facilitate the vaginal birth.

The next day, Dr. Fuchs performed a cervical incision to aid the delivery and a healthy boy was born, said court papers.

Ms. DiGeronimo continued bleeding heavily after the delivery and surgery and other procedures couldn't stanch the hemorrhaging.

Due to her extreme blood loss, Ms. DiGeronimo was told she would die without an allogenic blood transfusion, could papers said. She nodded her approval, but was too weak to sign a consent form.

Her husband, who had authority as her health-care proxy, signed the form on his wife's behalf, said court records. She later contended to have no recollection of those events.

In support of her claim, Ms. DiGeronimo's expert physician contended a cesarean section should have been performed instead of attempting a vaginal birth. The cesarean would have prevented the uncontrolled hemorrhaging, he maintained, according to court papers.

Those documents said there was no dispute that Ms. DiGeronimo needed the transfusion to live.

Dr. Fuchs' expert physician countered that vaginal delivery was proper and there was no need for a C-section. He maintained the post-birth hemorrhaging couldn't have been anticipated and all appropriate measures were taken to try to treat it. In addition, Ms. DiGeronimo's blood cells couldn't be collected for re-insertion because her blood had been contaminated.

While Ms. DiGeronimo may have been offended or emotionally upset by the transfusion, that distress doesn't rise to the level required in a medical malpractice action, the judge said.

"There is no precedent for finding medical malpractice when a blood transfusion was the proximate cause of saving a life," wrote Maltese.

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