Family's fight for malpractice disclosure keeps son's memory alive
By: Peter Jones, Staff Writer, Colorado Community Newspapers
06/07/2007 (Note: This article has been edited with permission from its original version.)
It would be difficult not to feel the sadness that permeates the Centennial townhouse of David and Patty Skolnik.
David sits for only a few minutes to talk about family tragedy before restlessly getting up to putter around the house and water plants.
Patty’s warmth is immediate and welcoming, but the loss of Michael, her only child, has left scars that cannot be hidden by a bittersweet smile.
“I’ve cried and cried and cried until there are no tears left,” she says.
Patty has spent the last six months lobbying the Colorado Legislature. In May, she ended the most recent chapter in a long, cathartic family drama that in some ways is only beginning. Raising a child is not something easily forsaken by a mother – whether it is in her son’s adolescence, adulthood, life or death.
“This is the first time I’ve told the story and not cried,” Patty says. “I think it’s because going through this process has given me strength.”
Monday marked the third anniversary of Michael’s death at age 25, three years after undergoing what his parents now believe was unnecessary brain surgery.
Unbeknownst to the Skolniks at the time, the surgeon had already been sued for malpractice in Georgia. The family later settled its own wrongful-death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
The out-of-court settlement was a heartbreaking moment for a family who had longed for a just ending to a sad story. But this spring has written a new post-script and brought a sense of renewal – if not healing – to the Skolnik household.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law the Michael Skolnik Medical Transparency Act. It makes malpractice judgments in the state part of the public record.
In doing so, Colorado has joined 21 other states in a national database. The data is available, for a charge, at healthgrades.com. By law, information on such judgments, settlements and arbitration awards are available only when states do not seal it.
“This will give the public the empowerment they need to choose a physician,” Patty says. “If I had known about this doctor’s lawsuits, I would have asked him about it. What you’re looking for is a pattern.
Well-watered plants are not the only signs of life in the Skolnik’s living room.
Two small dogs, a Papillion and a Yorkshire terrier, playfully wrestle on the carpet. Millennium, or Millie, a Congo African grey Parrot, occasionally joins in the fun. She was a 50th-birthday gift to David from Michael, who was working at PetSmart at the time.
Animals have always been a big part of the Skolnik family. When Michael lived here, the house had two dogs, four cockatiels and a cockatoo that Michael had rescued. He even took in cats with three legs, his mother remembers.
“He was rescuing everyone,” Patty smiles. “In kindergarten, there was a child with a brain tumor and Michael was the one who made sure he had everything he needed.”
Before his death, Michael had been working as an emergency medical technician and was studying to become a pediatric nurse before a single seizure set off a series of events that derailed his life.
As a result, the Skolnik home became something more like a general hospital than a unit in a covenant-controlled neighborhood.
“That was intake right there,” David says, pointing to the dining room. “That room right there was an intensive-care unit. There were electric lifting cranes in here.”
A staff of nurses, cumbersome medical equipment, and a series of hospital stays incurred an annual medical bill of $789,000. The Skolniks paid about 15-percent of nearly $5 million in total expenses out of their own pocket.
In the end, Michael was left with the cognitive abilities of a third grader. He could neither walk nor talk and was 50-percent blind in both eyes.
“He was a 6-foot-4-inch infant,” Patty surmises. “He understood what was going on, but he could only move his right arm. He had frontal lobe damage so he’d pick up a chair and just fling it. He had no control over his mouth.”
According to the Skolniks, Michael was never so far gone that he could not recognize the gravity of his situation. At his worst, Patty says, her son would routinely point his index finger to his head, as if he were holding a gun.
The last normal day of Michael’s life began and ended like any other. He was sitting on the couch playing with the family’s new puppy.
Suddenly, he inexplicably passed out.
When Michael regained consciousness, the 23-year-old EMT knew he had to get to the emergency room right away.
At the time, a doctor suggested that Michael had probably had a seizure, a side effect to Wellbutrin, an antidepressant he had been taking for smoking cessation. But a CT scan later revealed a mysterious three-millimeter dot on his brain.
The Skolniks believe that the neurosurgeon made a quick and deadly rush to judgment. He had warned that Michael was lucky to have survived his initial seizure and that he needed surgery immediately.
“He said, it’s a very simple operation,” Patty recalls the doctor saying. “You don’t even go in the brain. All I do is go in and excise the cyst.”
The Skolniks say the doctor claimed to have performed many such surgeries, but he later admitted in a legal deposition that Michael’s procedure had only been his second.
Whatever the case, no cyst was removed or revealed. An exhausting three-hour operation ended six hours later and Michael was never the same again.
Other physicians have since told the Skolniks that at most, a shunt should have been placed in Michael’s brain and that the elusive dot was likely benign. The seizure, some doctors say, was likely a bad reaction to the Wellbutrin.
The neurosurgeon, who would later establish a recently closed medical practice at Western Plains Neurosurgery in Scottsbluff, Neb., has been unavailable for comment to the press. He reportedly still lives in the Denver area and plans to open a new practice in Glenwood Springs, according to a Western Plains receptionist.
TheSkolniks become visibly angry when they describe the way the neurosurgeon announced Michael’s prognosis after the ill-fated surgery.
“He pulls his mask off and says, ‘I’ve had the worst year.’” David recalls angrily. “We were a family that made decisions together. This changed who we are. It was our life forever with Michael. Now, it’s still our life without Michael.”
The family’s 32-month nightmare included surgeries, infections, blood clots, paralysis, blindness and respiratory arrest. Over the months, Michael would suffer from, among other things, psychosis, incontinence, sleep apnea and an endocrine-system failure that caused him to gain more than 100 pounds. He was fed through a tube in his stomach.
On June 4, 2004, Michael looked into his father’s eyes, mouthed, “I love you” and died.
It’s April1, 1986. Seven-year old Michael Skolnik is up to his usual tricks, but this time, he is armed with a convenient little alibi called April Fool’s Day. The mischievous child is slowly creeping up behind his unsuspecting mother… when all of a sudden, crack!
A perfect shot, over and easy. A broken egg scrambled on Patty's face.
"He just thought that was the funniest thing he had ever done," Patty recalls, as a glow quickly covers the same face. "My first reaction was, 'What have you done?' But then, you had to laugh because Michael just made you laugh. He was such a character."
The laughs come as easy as the tears when Patty talks about her only child.
Michael never lost his senses of compassion - and humor, either.
Even for a period after the surgery, he kept a stiff upper lip by joking about his new disabilities. He called his wheelchair helmet and other accoutrements his "gimp gear" and talked about someday starting a Web site with that moniker.
Patty and David were raised Jewish and Catholic, respectively, but they remain noncommittal about drawing firm spiritual conclusions from their experiences.
"Your life is forever changed and you hope there is something after death so you can believe you will see your child again," Patty says.
She remembers Michael's realization, at 13, that he did not believe in God.
"What if you die and you find out there is a God, what do you think God will feel?" Patty quizzed her son at the time.
"Well, if God is supposed to be all forgiving, he'll forgive me for not believing in him," the young teen retorted.
The exchange has resonated with Patty for more than a decade.
"I thought that was pretty profound for a 13-year-old," she says smiling.
The hard road to bring something positive from Michael's death has made this week's third anniversary slightly less painful. Patty is beginning to suspect that there may be some sort of reason that all this has happened to her family.
“Somehow, someway, I feel Michael is right there behind me pushing me along."