Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital allowed former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to bleed internally for 30 hours after a gastric bypass operation, bringing Weis to the brink of death and leaving him with permanent nerve damage in his right foot, Weis's lawyer said yesterday.
At the trial of Weis's malpractice lawsuit yesterday, attorney Michael E. Mone asserted in his opening statement that two surgeons involved in the weight-reduction surgery disregarded warning signs that Weis was bleeding internally following the June 14, 2002, operation. Not until June 16, when a nurse suggested a test that reveals stomach leaks, did doctors Charles M. Ferguson and Richard A. Hodin realize that Weis was bleeding internally and spilling stomach contents into his abdomen, causing massive infection, Mone said.
"Mr. Weis was harmed by the negligence of Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Hodin, and that caused him injuries . . . that he suffers today and will suffer for the rest of his life," Mone told the jury of seven women and six men in Suffolk Superior Court.
But the surgeons' lawyer, William J. Dailey Jr., said in his opening statement that Weis's internal bleeding, while unfortunate, is not unusual for this type of surgery, in which 5 percent to 10 percent of patients have serious complications and 1 out of 100 dies. Ferguson had directly briefed Weis about the dangers, including internal bleeding, and Weis understood, the lawyer said.
Dailey said Ferguson, Hodin, and numerous other Mass. General doctors were aware that Weis was bleeding internally to some degree, but they believed that the bleeding would stop without surgery. He said they were worried that Weis might have developed a blood clot in his lung, called a pulmonary embolism, which would have made a second surgery extremely dangerous.
"If there's anything you don't want to do, it's reoperate on a patient with a pulmonary embolism," Dailey said.
The trial, expected to take about two weeks to complete, pits doctors from one of New England's best hospitals against a former leader of one of the region's most popular sports teams, drawing spectators to Judge Charles T. Spurlock's courtroom. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a close friend who visited Weis twice after the operation, is expected to testify later this week.
Yesterday, Weis, now head coach of the University of Notre Dame football team, sat stoically in the front row of the gallery with his wife, Maura, as the lawyers discussed what Weis has called "probably the biggest mistake of my life."
Weis sought the procedure, in which his stomach was surgically reduced in size, as he became increasingly concerned that his 350-pound bulk could lead to an early death. In addition, Weis feared that his morbid obesity could hurt his chances of becoming a head coach, Mone said.
Weis underwent two days of screening at Mass. General in early June 2002 that determined he was a good candidate for surgery because he had few health problems aside from obesity. Although patients normally wait months for the surgery, Mone said Mass. General officials agreed to perform Weis's surgery immediately so that he could recover in time to work at the Patriots summer training camp.
However, Dailey said Ferguson warned Weis that "it would be wise if you put this off to the end of the season because, if you get one of these complications, you're not going to be able to work."
The surgery, which took place on a Friday, seemed to have gone well by the time Ferguson went home for the weekend around 6 p.m., Mone said. But, by 2 a.m. on Saturday, Weis was having difficulty breathing, which Mone argued was a sign that fluid, probably blood, was filling his abdomen, compressing his lungs.
Hodin, a general surgeon covering Ferguson's patients for the weekend, as well as doctors in the intensive care unit, became concerned that Weis's respiratory distress could be caused by a dangerous clot in his lungs.
But Jennifer Wilson, the intensive care nurse who looked after Weis during the day on Saturday and Sunday, testified yesterday that she suspected extensive internal bleeding on Saturday morning, in part because a significant amount of blood was coming out of a tube that was draining his stomach. He also required several blood transfusions that day, she said, adding that she conveyed her concern about internal bleeding to doctors in the intensive care unit.
For much of the weekend, doctors continued to believe that a blood clot was Weis's main problem. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilson said she suggested that doctors perform a barium swallow test that allows radiologists to watch where fluid goes when the patient swallows it. The fluid went straight out of Weis's stomach and into his abdomen, medical records show, suggesting that the surgical staples were not tight enough to prevent leaks. Dr. Hodin operated immediately to repair the leak, but Weis was already severely ill.
"He spent days at death's door" and was not released from Mass. General until July 5, 2002, Mone said. Because of the prolonged hospitalization and what Mone argued was poor care, Weis suffered nerve damage to his lower legs and feet that made it difficult to walk or stand. He said Weis suffers great pain when he stands on the sidelines during a football game.
Scott Allen can be reached at email@example.com.