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Pregnant Woman Paralyzed Following Improper Injection

March 8, 1985

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ A pregnant woman was irreversibly paralyzed from the neck down when a physician mistakenly injected a cancer drug into her spinal column instead of a vein, hospital officials said Friday.

″I think we have to understand here that this is a rare occurrence,″ Dr. Michael Vanko, president and director of Albany Medical Center Hospital, said at a news conference. ″It has never occurred here before. It was not a judgmental error. It was an unfortunate error.″

The 21-year-old woman, who is 6 months pregnant, was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a malignant tumor in her sinuses Feb. 27 when a staff resident misread the label on a syringe, said Dr. Gregory Harper, the woman’s attending physician.

The drug, called vincristine, is intended for intravenous use only, but the resident injected it along with other medications into the woman’s spinal column, said Harper. Another resident was observing the procedure, and Harper was not in the hospital at the time.

The mistake was discovered about an hour later when nurses came in to inject the vincristine and could not find the syringe, said Harper. Doctors then attempted to flush out the woman’s spinal column with a saline solution and used intravenous drugs to try to stop the effects of the vincristine, he said.

″Both residents came back to the hospital in tears″ after learning of the error, Harper said. ″They’re shattered. We were all in tears.″

The Albany-area woman, who Vanko said will not be identified, must use a respirator to breathe. Because the vincristine bound itself to her nervous system tissues, the paralysis is irreversible, Harper said.

The woman is not comatose, and she was told of her condition, said Harper. The unborn child was not affected and is maintaining a stable heart rate, said Dr. John Goldkrand, head of the hospital’s division of maternal fetal medicine.

Harper said that of 20 to 30 cases he knows of worldwide in which vincristine was injected in the spinal column, only one patient, a 10-year-old boy in Helsinki, Finland, survived. The drug has been used for 15 years to treat a wide variety of cancers.

Harper said he could not speculate on how long the woman might live.

″Our research and phone calls to the company which makes the vincristine have confirmed that the prognosis for this particular complication is very likely to be fatal,″ he said.

Goldkrand said efforts to maintain the pregnancy would continue even if the woman becomes brain dead.

The family ″very clearly want us to provide all means of support to the mother and baby,″ Harper said.

The state Health Department is investigating the incident, and the residents, who were not identified, were reassigned within the hospital, Vanko said, adding that he could not comment on whether a malpractice suit would be filed.

Health Department spokesman Peter Slocum said he could not discuss the case during the investigation and findings to be completed in several weeks will determine whether there was any misconduct in the case.

In a similar case, Bob East, a retired photographer for The Miami Herald, was pronounced brain dead on Tuesday, four days after doctors at Jackson Memorial Medical Center in Miami accidentally injected him with a chemical preservative during surgery for facial cancer.

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