UPMC sued over botched kidney transplant

A Greene County couple involved in a botched kidney transplant that led to a two-month shutdown of UPMC's living donor kidney and liver transplant programs -- and to state and federal investigations -- filed two malpractice lawsuits this morning in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Christina Mecannic and Michael Yocabet sued UPMC, University of Pittsburgh Physicians, four doctors and one nurse after federal investigators determined that an entire transplant team missed a test result that showed Ms. Mecannic was infected with hepatitis C when her kidney was transplanted into Mr. Yocabet on April 6.


The 12-count lawsuits allege acts of professional negligence, corporate negligence, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They ask for compensatory and punitive damages but do not ask for a specific amount. The lawsuits ask for a jury trial.

The lawsuits recount an exchange between Ms. Mecannic and an unnamed UPMC surgeon following the transplant.

It was May 6, 2011, and she had gone to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital from her home in Mather for a meeting with her doctor, not knowing why she needed to go in one month after she donated a kidney to her live-in boyfriend of 21 years, Mr. Yocabet, who had type 1 diabetes and diabetic nephropathy.

But a UPMC surgeon - whose name is not given in the suit - proceeded to ask her if she had "cheated on" Mr. Yocabet, and later asked if she may have recently used cocaine, according to the lawsuits.


The surgeon told her he was asking because she had tested positive for hepatitis C prior to the transplant but that she didn't need to tell Mr. Yocabet about the test result, the lawsuits said.

As part of six of the counts in each lawsuit, it is alleged that the suggestion by the surgeon that Ms. Mecannic not tell Mr. Yocabet about the positive test result was part of an attempted "cover-up."

Ms. Mecannic said in the lawsuit that she has never used cocaine nor been unfaithful to her partner.

UPMC said in a statement this afternoon: "We sincerely regret the human error that caused this situation however any allegation of a cover-up is completely false. Once the error was discovered, UPMC disclosed the information to the patients involved and UNOS. We voluntarily suspended our live-donor program and have fully complied with all investigations. The well-being of our patients remains our highest priority."

UNOS is the United Network for Organ Sharing, an organization that oversees the nation's transplant centers for the federal government.

A day after Ms. Mecannic's exchange with the surgeon, UPMC told the state and federal agencies overseeing its transplant operations that it was temporarily shutting down its living kidney transplant program because of the botched transplant, which ended up infecting Mr. Yocabet, the lawsuits say.

A transplant surgeon -- Henkie Tan, who then oversaw the living donor program -- and a nurse -- Mimi Funovits, the transplant coordinator on the case -- were disciplined for missing the test result. It would take federal regulators two more months to complete their investigations into the error and allow UPMC to restart the program.

Dr. Tan and Ms. Funovits are both named in the lawsuits, as are three other doctors, Mark Sturdevant, Jennifer Steel and Nirav Shah.

"The mistakes made by UPMC and their doctors have been physically and emotionally devastating to Michael and Christina, and will affect them the rest of their lives," their attorney on the case, Harry Cohen, said in a press release this morning. "It is vitally important to Michael and Christina that no other transplant patients have to suffer the way they are suffering."

Mr. Cohen held a press conference today at his office with Mr. Yocabet and Ms. Mecannic, who have an 18-year-old son.

Among other accusations that add new details to the story of what happened in the case, the couple allege that four days after Ms. Mecannic was told she had tested positive, and news of UPMC's decision to shut down the program was first reported, she got a call from Dr. Steel.

Though Ms. Mecannic had not read the story that first appeared May 10, Dr. Steel "insinuated that Ms. Mecannic, Mr. Yocabet, or some family member or friend had gone to the media with this information," according to the lawsuits.

But the lawsuits say no one from their family had gone to the media "because they wanted to keep this matter confidential" and they were "deeply offended by the insinuation against them."

Then, a day later, Ms. Funovits called and again asked Ms. Mecannic if "a family member leaked information to the media," according to the lawsuits.

Four of the counts in each lawsuit say that the couple suffered intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress because the accusations of leaking the story to the media were made "in an intimidating manner under the circumstances . . . as though it were a crime, when even if they had conveyed information to the press, which they had not, would not have been doing anything wrong."

Though the positive hepatitis C test result was in Ms. Mecannic's file as early as Jan. 26, an investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found that doctors and nurses missed finding the test result during at least six steps along the way.

That included multiple transplant team meetings where doctors and nurses discussed Ms. Mecannic and Mr. Yocabet's cases.

The lawsuits also outline one additional step during which Ms. Mecannic's positive status could have been caught, but wasn't.

After the January blood screening, Ms. Mecannic's blood was to be screened for a second time, on March 29, using tests that again looked for hepatitis C and other diseases. The test was ordered by Dr. Tan and results were supposed to be faxed to Ms. Funovits.

But a day later, the transplant team was told there was not enough blood to perform the tests and more blood should be taken from Ms. Mecannic. Ms. Funovits wrote in the chart: "Sorry! We should re-draw," the lawsuits say.

The additional test, however, was never performed, the lawsuits say, and seven days later the transplant went forward.

The lawsuits say UPMC is not clear when they first discovered the positive test result. But just a few days after Ms. Mecannic and Mr. Yocabet were discharged on April 8 and April 9, respectively, they were asked to return to the hospital "for what was characterized for them as routine blood work following a transplant surgery."

The results of this new round of testing came back to UPMC on April 22, showing again that Ms. Mecannic was positive for the disease. But the couple still was not told of the positive test result until May 6, the lawsuits say.

The couple's press release concludes by pointing out that Mr. Yocabet is no longer a UPMC patient and is now seeing doctors at Cleveland Clinic.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579. First Published September 20, 2011 1:00 PM


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