After misdiagnosis and amputation, Anchorage woman wins $21M

The federal government has paid an Anchorage woman more than $20 million after a bad diagnosis led to the amputation of her arms and legs.

Staff at Alaska Native Medical Center in 2011 thought the woman had shingles, when she actually had a worsening skin infection and was in the early stages of sepsis. They sent her home, but several days later, Mardi Strong returned near-death, suffering septic shock. Ultimately, doctors were forced to amputate her limbs.

Strong is a member of the Yakima Indian Nation and was a construction worker in Alaska. She had recently completed a two-year certificate in computer-aided design to become an engineer.

Instead, in the seven years since the misdiagnosis, Strong has been seeking compensation from the Department of Justice, which represents Native hospitals in medical malpractice issues.

“It’s only now that we’re able to get her the care she needs,” said Rick Vollertsen, Mardi Strong’s attorney.

Vollertsen said evidence in the court fight included depositions from hospital staff taken in 2015 for the trial. Those depositions indicated, at least in 2015, that the hospital had failed to review its procedures and did not issue any discipline to the staff involved.

“I was unable to ascertain from these care providers that they’d been properly trained in how to recognize sepsis or that they understood the telltale signs of sepsis,” Vollertsen said. “It’s kind of scary.”

He said the money will help fund her ongoing medical needs. But the settlement should also have encouraged better practices to avoid further misdiagnoses.

Alaska Native Medical Center denied that it failed to properly review the case. That’s according to a written statement the hospital issued, in which ANMC says it, “profoundly regrets the experience of Ms. Strong and her family.”

“While this isolated outcome is in no way representative of the exceptional care ANMC provides to patients, we have taken the opportunity to carefully scrutinize each step of the care we provide for possible improvements,” the statement said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage, which defended the federal government and eventually agreed to pay Strong, refused to answer any questions for this story.

Vollertsen, Mardi Strong’s attorney, says the settlement amount should be enough to encourage the Department of Justice to require better follow-up from hospitals that have made such huge mistakes, which are called “sentinel events.”

“So the taxpayers have paid this claim,” Vollertsen said. “The concern that I have is that the government has some weight to bring to bear on this hospital system, to mandate that the corporate culture change occurs that quality assurance principles are adopted, with vigor.”

Shortly after the multi-million-dollar settlement this October, Strong was in Colorado undergoing preparations for upgraded prosthetics.

Vollertsen said Thursday that yearlong process, which involves surgery and learning how to use prosthetic arms and legs, continues. Vollertsen said his client continues to heal, both emotionally and physically, now that the settlement is public and finalized.

“I know it was important to her to have this case heard,” Vollertsen said.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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