DES MOINES, Iowa – A Des Moines man has been awarded $27 million in damages after a local urgent care clinic failed to diagnose him with a serious meningitis infection that ultimately resulted in permanent brain damage.
The now-53-year-old Joseph Dudley still wrestles with the physical and mental limitations following his 2017 illness, which his wife says affects his ability to have an active role in his young children’s lives.
But when he first arrived at a UnityPoint Point urgent care clinic with symptoms in February 2017, he was diagnosed with influenza and sent home.
On Monday, the Polk County jury found the physician assistant supervising the clinic at the time, Melanie Choos, to be negligent in that decision, which directly caused damage to Dudley.
“This is a fair and just verdict for a man who has severe, permanent brain damage and who is one of tens of thousands of medical malpractice victims that have cases pending in this country,” said Nick Rowley, an attorney representing Dudley and his wife. , Sarah.
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UnityPoint Health officials declined to speak to details of the case but said Monday they believe the clinic met established standards of care. UnityPoint Health’s lawyers also argued during the trial that the treatment Dudley received at the clinic met the standard of care based on the symptoms he presented when he arrived.
“We respect the jury process but strongly disagree with this verdict and are exploring all options, including an appeal. We support our providers and clinicians as they make important medical decisions each day,” health system officials said in a statement Monday. “UnityPoint Clinic remains committed to providing compassionate, personalized care and meeting the highest standards of clinical quality and patient safety.”
Flu test was negative, but Dudley was still diagnosed
In February 2017, Joseph Dudley returned home complaining of fatigue and dizziness. He also developed a fever that grew worse over time, until his wife drove him to a Des Moines urgent care clinic a few hours later. By the time they arrived after 7 pm, his fever was over 103 degrees.
By this time, Joseph Dudley was becoming delusional, acting erratic and combative as staff tried to conduct a nasal test.
Sarah Dudley said when the physician assistant walked into the room to conduct the exam, she asked what illegal drugs her husband was taking and if he was withdrawing. Sarah Dudley said he does not do drugs, and that she felt her husband was treated badly because he is Black.
Choos diagnosed Joseph Dudley with influenza, even though a test for the flu came back negative. She then sent him home with Tamiflu and with recommendations for Sarah Dudley to bring him back to the clinic if symptoms had not improved in five to seven days.
“That was a death sentence for Joe,” Rowley said.
Joseph Dudley, unable to walk because of dizziness, had to be placed in a wheelchair to leave the clinic. A clinic staff member helped Sarah Dudley load her husband into the care using a gait belt, she said.
“I had faith in them, I believed them,” Sarah Dudley told the Des Moines Register, part of the Network, following the jury verdict. “I would never think at an urgent care clinic we would be treated this way.”
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According to Rowley, Choos was the only provider on staff and did not have a physician on site to supervise, which ultimately led to “sloppy, substandard medical care.”
“Physician assistants should not be running clinics on their own without any supervising physician,” Rowley said. “That shouldn’t happen in Iowa, but it is happening in Iowa and because of it, people are getting hurt and people are dying.”
Joseph Dudley’s condition did not improve and a few days later, on Feb. 20, 2017, Sarah Dudley took him to the emergency room at UnityPoint Iowa Methodist Medical Center. There, he was diagnosed with acute meningitis and placed in a medically induced coma.
He spent eight days in the intensive care unit and was later transferred to the inpatient unit, where he remained until he was discharged on March 28, 2017.
Doctors later discovered that he had suffered three strokes as a result of his infection. Joseph Dudley has permanently lost hearing in his right ear and suffered nerve damage in his right leg, meaning he cannot walk in a straight line. He also has mood swings and deals with paranoia, Sarah Dudley said.
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It took six months for him to relearn how to walk, first with a walker, then with a cane. He also underwent weeks of speech therapy and had to relearn to feed and bathe himself, Sarah Dudley said.
His physical condition has improved, but he is still unable to do some things, like go skating with his 6-year-old daughter. Sarah Dudley said it’s challenging for her daughter to understand why her father can’t always do things with her.
“Every day of Joe’s life will be affected by the severe brain damage he has,” she said.
Still, Sarah Dudley said they are gratified by the verdict. The jury awarded the couple $12 million for future loss of full mind and body, and $10 million for future pain and suffering based on his life expectancy.
It also awarded them $2.5 million for past loss of body and mind function, and $2.5 million for past pain and suffering.
Follow Michaela Ramm on Twitter at @Michaela_Ramm.