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Spotlight update

Double surgery did not cause man’s quadriplegia, jury finds

Tony Meng, of Westwood, now needs a home health aide for basic tasks.
Tony Meng, of Westwood, now needs a home health aide for basic tasks.(SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/File 2015)

A Boston jury on Monday found that a spine surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital failed to inform a Westwood financial analyst that he planned to operate on two patients at once, but the jury concluded that the doctor’s divided attention did not cause the man’s quadriplegia.

As a result the jury awarded Tony Meng, a 45-year-old father of two, no financial damages.

Meng testified in Suffolk Superior Court that Dr. Kirkham Wood never told him that he planned to juggle Meng’s 2012 surgery with that of another spine patient for more than five hours. Meng said he never would have consented to the operation had he known.

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His spinal cord somehow bent at an acute angle as a result of the 11-hour surgical case and protruded through a hole in the dura, the tough membrane that encases the spinal cord. He woke up paralyzed and now uses a wheelchair.

But the jury wasn’t persuaded that the breach of informed consent caused Meng’s injuries.

“We’re glad we were able to show through the verdict that concurrent surgery is not acceptable and that it’s wrong not to tell the patient if you’re going to be in two operating rooms at the same time,’’ Meng’s lawyer, Bill Thompson, of the Boston law firm Lubin & Meyer, said afterward. “We’re disappointed that this jury didn’t connect that violation to Tony’s injuries because we feel very strongly that they are related.’’

The verdict baffled Meng.

“I think the system has failed us,’’ he said.

Wood’s lawyers declined to comment.

Meng’s disastrous operation figured prominently in a Globe Spotlight Team investigation of simultaneous surgeries at MGH and other teaching hospitals. Many hospitals have since restricted the practice, also known as “concurrent surgery,” and a US Senate committee recently sought to curb it.

Two other former patients of Wood’s have sued him for medical malpractice alleging that double-booking contributed to their complications. One of the patients is former Red Sox relief pitcher Bobby Jenks, who blames Wood for what he alleges was a botched back operation in 2011 that ended his career.

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Judge Edward Leibensperger declined to let the jury hear that concurrent surgery was the focus of an extraordinary, long-running fight in MGH’s orthopedics department even before Meng’s surgery. Shortly after Meng’s operation, a knee-and-hip surgeon in the department implored leaders of MGH in an email to “shut this practice down.’’

“What will you tell this quadriplegic man and his family when they ask if his paralysis could have been prevented by having his surgeon be attentive only to him during his surgery?’’ the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Dennis Burke, wrote.

The judge ruled that jurors could only consider whether the medical treatment that Meng received — including the fact that Wood oversaw two operating rooms simultaneously -- deviated from established standards of care and caused his injury.

Wood, who headed MGH’s spine service at the time of Meng’s operation, left the hospital in 2015 to become a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University in his native California.

He told the Globe after a court hearing in January 2015 about one of the other lawsuits that concurrent surgery was common at teaching hospitals and that MGH was “being crucified for something that happens at hospitals across the globe.”

In his closing argument Thursday, Meng’s lawyer, Thompson, told jurors that Wood mounted a “cover-up’’ to conceal that he had left Meng partway through the surgery to perform complex spine surgery on a 70-year-old woman in another room. The woman was identified at trial with a pseudonym, Ms. Smith.

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Immediately after the operations, Wood wrote in Smith’s operative note that he was present for the critical parts of the second phase of her procedure, Thompson said. But Meng’s lawyers presented evidence showing that Wood revised Smith’s records two weeks later to specify that those critical parts included “positioning the patient and directing the incision and plan for instrumentation removal.”

Those phrases, Thompson said, were intended to suggest that Wood was only present at the very start of that phase of Smith’s surgery -- and otherwise stayed with Meng.

“This is the beginning of the cover-up’’ Thompson told jurors, using a video screen to compare the original and revised medical records.

Wood’s lawyer, Marcin, dismissed allegations of a cover-up, saying there was no “dirty little secret.” She said Meng’s surgery was inherently risky because he had a serious degenerative spine condition and that other surgeons might not have even attempted it, but Meng went to Wood because of the latter’s expertise.

The month before the operation, Meng was diagnosed with ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament, or OPLL, which constricted his spinal cord, causing pain, tingling and numbness

She argued that Wood left Meng only during natural breaks in his operation, such as when the surgical team was repositioning Meng or taking X-rays. She likened Wood’s departures to the breaks that the judge routinely gave jurors during the trial.

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“There’s no credible evidence that Dr. Wood was not in Tony Meng’s surgery,’’ said Marcin. “The two surgeries are not linked in any way to Mr. Meng’s outcome.’’


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.