August 17, 2008 in City

More patients ready to testify

Key ruling due this week in oral surgeon’s trial
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Jana Vitamanti had to have surgery for an infected jaw after oral surgeon Dr. Patrick Collins left a sponge in her jaw.
(Full-size photo)

With the malpractice trial of Dr. Patrick Collins going into its sixth week Monday, the question of whether additional patients can testify who say they also were harmed by the Spokane dentist remains unresolved.

Mary Schultz, the lawyer for plaintiff Kimberly Kallestad, has told Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price she has other patients “waiting in the wings” to rebut Collins’ claims of a near-perfect success rate in open-jaw surgeries, while defense lawyer John Versnel III has promised to match every unhappy patient with a satisfied one. Price will rule on the issue this week.

In testimony Thursday, Collins said his success rate is 86 percent, based on a 2007 study by his staff of 117 responding patients out of 202 contacted. Collins also said 31 of those patients reported poor results, including ongoing pain and fused jaws.

One oral surgeon, Dr. Robert Walker, of Dallas, testified last week that Collins’ surgeries on Kallestad met the standard of care although they were different from his technique, but said in cross-examination he hadn’t been informed of any negative outcomes. Three other oral surgeons have testified for Kallestad that Collins’ surgeries and steroid injections were below the standard of care and shouldn’t have been performed.

“Standard of care” is the legal benchmark for malpractice cases.

Kallestad, who is accusing Collins of permanently disabling her after a series of open-jaw surgeries and steroid injections in 2000 and 2001, has testified that Collins promised he’d be her “hero” and fix her jaw – citing a 95 percent success rate.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen people who say they are former patients of Collins have contacted The Spokesman-Review to report bad experiences with the oral surgeon. The three-year statute of limitations to sue has expired for most of them, but they say they were motivated to respond after reading about the trial.

That’s not unusual, said Versnel, a Seattle lawyer who represents many of the state’s dentists. “When there’s media attention, people always come forward,” Versnel said.

Jana Vitamanti, of Cheney, said she “about fell off my chair” after reading about Collins’ reassurances to Kallestad.

“I was one of his patients in 2000 and had jaw surgery and he left a sponge in my jaw during surgery,” Vitamanti said. She provided records of her June 12, 2000, surgery and subsequent correspondence with Collins’ office to back up her story.

Vitamanti, then named Jana Nelson, had been referred to Collins by Pullman dentist Dr. Glenn Armstrong for jaw surgery prior to getting braces. Six weeks after the surgery, Vitamanti said she wasn’t feeling well and was “turning yellow.”

She went back to Armstrong on July 25. He discovered an infection in her top right jaw and sent her back to Collins. The next day, Collins took X-rays, discovered the sponge, and yanked it out.

“I told him I shouldn’t have to pay. He knew he’d messed up; he was very apologetic,” Vitamanti said.

“They gave me everything I asked for,” she added.

Sylvia Knight, of Spokane, said she was the first patient to have artificial jaw replacement surgery in Collins’ office in 1996 – a controversial procedure not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the time.

Collins inserted titanium bolts into her upper skull, but a bone graft didn’t take on one side, Knight said.

“I’d been living with severe headaches, but Collins said nothing was wrong,” she said.

Knight said the pain continued as she and her husband were transferred around the country. In 2005, after she’d returned to Spokane, another doctor did an MRI and discovered the bone graft didn’t take and one of the rods had gone through her skull. A neurosurgeon has suggested waiting because of the risks of further surgery.

“I’m in excruciating pain all the time. I live on pain medications, and I have days where I don’t get out of bed,” Knight said. She said she’d considered suing Collins, but lawyers told her the statute of limitations had expired. She has retained all her records from her treatment by Collins.

Seth Ash, of Republic, said he went to Collins for relief from jaw pain suffered after a group of teenagers assaulted him and crushed his skull in 1996. He said the brace Collins built for his mouth didn’t help and Collins told him the pain was “all in his head” when he complained.

“I was so depressed for a long time,” Ash said.

Several other patients, including a St. Maries woman and a health care worker in Spokane, also shared their stories about complications from Collins’ surgeries but said they didn’t want to be identified because they might be called as rebuttal witnesses in Kallestad’s trial.

One woman said Collins also should be given more credit for the good he’s done.

Joyce Brother, of Spokane, said she had her upper teeth pulled about five years ago and Collins “gave me my life back” by fixing poorly fitting dentures and putting in low-cost implants. “He was very considerate; he deserves some recognition for this,” Brother said.

Some testimony sought by Kallestad’s lawyers about other patients has already been admitted at trial. Spokane dentist Dr. John Ames has testified he had five patients who’d gone to Collins before seeking help from him for their pain, and Kallestad was “not the worst” of those patients.

Dr. James Howard also testified that he’d had a “multiple number” of patients who’d been damaged. Howard angrily confronted Collins in a restaurant about the patients Collins had operated on who were coming to Howard in pain, according to court documents. Collins will continue his testimony Monday in Price’s courtroom.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509)459-5462 or by e-mail at karend@spokesman.com


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