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Former Red Sox pitcher settles claim with doctor, MGH for $5.1 million

Former Red Sox pitcher Bobby Jenks posed for a portrait in Boston.
Former Red Sox pitcher Bobby Jenks posed for a portrait in Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bobby Jenks will receive $5.1 million to settle a claim that he suffered a career-ending spine injury when a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital operated on his back while overseeing another operation at the same time.

The hard-throwing former relief pitcher reached an out-of-court settlement Wednesday with MGH and Dr. Kirkham Wood, its former head of orthopedic spine surgery, the day before his medical malpractice suit was to go to trial in Boston.

Jenks, who came to Boston in 2011 and pitched in 19 games before hurting his back that June, said Wood bungled his spine operation six months later and never told him he was overseeing a second simultaneous operation.

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“Never picking up a baseball again is absolutely devastating,” Jenks said in an interview Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel near Faneuil Hall, where he was staying with his wife and 5-year-old son in preparation for the trial. “I was living my dream, and it was taken away from me.”

MGH said in a statement that Wood provided “high-quality and appropriate care” to Jenks and that “overlapping surgery played no role in this case.”

“The amount of the settlement was far less than Mr. Jenks’s original demands, and we agreed that this resolution would be the most prudent outcome for all concerned,” the hospital said.

Lawyers for Wood, who left the hospital in 2015 and is a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University Medical Center, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case marks the third time in recent years that Wood was sued by a patient who suffered a serious complication as the surgeon juggled simultaneous operations. The controversial practice, known as “concurrent surgery,” was the focus of a 2015 Globe Spotlight Team series.

Clash in the Name of Care
It is the root question in a battle pitting a star surgeon against a great hospital, MGH, and the conflict has put careers and reputations at risk. (A Boston Globe Spotlight Team Report)

Juries in the two prior suits concluded that Wood did not cause his patients’ injuries, although the jury in the first case found he failed to inform the patient — a Westwood financial analyst who ended up a quadriplegic — that the doctor planned to operate on two people at once.

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In contrast to the other plaintiffs, Jenks, who now lives in Malibu, Calif., was well-known. He earned over $26 million playing six seasons for the Chicago White Sox, where he was a two-time All Star, and then part of the 2011 season for the Red Sox.

Jenks went to Wood in August 2011, two months after he left the mound in pain while pitching to the Yankees’ Jorge Posada. The surgeon recommended spinal decompression surgery to reduce his pain in the hopes of getting him on the mound again.

As Jenks recounts it, Wood told him the surgery would be “quick and easy” and he would be ready for spring training with the Red Sox in 2012.

Lawyers for Wood and the hospital disputed that in a court filing, saying, “Dr. Wood did not guarantee that Jenks would be able to return to professional baseball” — just that the surgery offered the best chance for him to do so.

Jenks’s three-hour operation in December 2011 initially appeared to go well, according to medical records obtained by the Globe. Lawyers for Wood and the hospital said in the court filing that Jenks’s treatment “met or exceeded the standard of care.”

Two weeks later, however, Jenks felt what he said seemed like a cup of water spurt from the surgical wound in his back at home in Mesa, Ariz. Then he had an excruciating headache. It turned out that he had suffered a tear in the dural sac that covers the spine and leaked spinal fluid.

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Lawyers for Wood and MGH said that a dural tear was a known risk of the surgery and that Jenks failed to follow hospital discharge instructions by immediately calling Wood. But Jenks insisted he did, saying he and his agent left messages with Wood but never heard from him.

A surgeon in Arizona repaired the dural tear and told Jenks that Wood had failed to complete the spine operation. Wood, the surgeon said, left a bony spicule that caused the tear.

But defense lawyers said in the court filing “there was no protrusion of bone” at the time of Jenks’s first operation or immediately afterward. They also insisted that Wood did complete the operation.

Jenks had already filed suit when he learned in 2015 that Wood had been overseeing a second surgery during his operation. An operating room schedule obtained by the Globe indicated that 18 minutes before Jenks’s case began in OR 72, Wood had started a second spine operation in OR 73 that lasted about eight hours.

Lawyers for Wood and MGH said in the court filing that he “performed the entirety of Jenks’s spinal surgery” and was also the attending surgeon of record for the other patient. Wood didn’t enter the operating room of the other patient until “he had completed Jenks’s surgery,” the defense lawyers said.

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The identity of the patient in OR 73 has never been publicly disclosed. But Robert Higgins, whose Boston law firm, Lubin & Meyer, represented all three patients who sued Wood, questioned that patient’s care as well.

The anesthesiologist in that operating room, Dr. Lisa Wollman, said in a deposition that the patient lay under anesthesia for 2½ hours with little happening while Wollman frantically paged Wood to get him to come, Higgins said.

“This is a terrible practice,” Higgins said of concurrent surgery. “It’s done to maximize monies coming to the hospital. [Surgeons] haven’t figured out how to clone themselves, so they run two operating rooms at the same time.”

Soon after Wood’s operation on Jenks, Dr. Dennis Burke, an orthopedic surgeon at MGH who had repeatedly complained about the practice of double-booked operations, learned that Wood had been running a second operation at the same time as Jenks’s.

“Can you imagine the harm that will occur to this institution’s reputation if it were to be discovered that this patient’s surgery was ‘double-booked,’ with the attending surgeon operating on two patients simultaneously?’’ Burke wrote to a Mass. General administrator in a March 2012 e-mail obtained by the Globe.

Though many surgeons at teaching hospitals in the United States schedule operations to overlap by a few minutes — letting trainees close the surgical wound of the first operation while the surgeon moves on to the second — the debate at Mass. General focused on surgeries that overlapped much longer.

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Burke was fired in 2015 after 35 years at Mass. General. The hospital accused him of improperly releasing patient records with names redacted to the Globe. But Burke contends the real reason was his refusal to remain silent about what he was convinced was a serious patient safety issue. He, too, is suing the hospital.

A large study published in February by JAMA suggested that the practice of overlapping surgeries is safe for most patients. But the study found that a subset of vulnerable patients might be put at significantly higher risk of post-operative complications, including infections, pneumonia, heart attack, or death.

Jenks said he views his $5.1 million settlement as an opportunity to educate the public about the dangers of concurrent surgery.

“I want this to be spread everywhere and known by everybody,” he said in an interview. “What they practiced at the hospital was unsafe and should not be done anywhere.”

Wood was also a defendant in a fourth medical malpractice lawsuit that went to trial in 2017. A Boston jury awarded $2.75 million to a young man because Wood failed to diagnose a serious chronic infection after he surgically removed his tailbone in 2011. There was no allegation of concurrent surgeries, according to the patient’s lawyer, Elizabeth Mulvey.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com