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  • Blythe Bernhard, St. Louis Post Dispatch

St. Louis man wins $8.3 million malpractice award against John Cochran VA hospital

An Army veteran and longtime postal worker from St. Louis who lost his leg and suffered severe brain damage following a routine procedure at John Cochran VA Medical Center was awarded $8.3 million Monday in federal court.

Dirk Askew, then 43, had a cardiac stent inserted at Cochran in February 2009 after complaining of chest pain. Askew soon developed swelling and bleeding at the surgical site in his right upper thigh. After a week, he was readmitted to Cochran and had surgery to repair an artery at the wound site, where an infection was discovered.

Askew’s attorneys alleged there was an unnecessary delay of several days before a corrective surgery was performed, and that surgeons improperly used infected tissue to patch the artery. Further negligence by the Cochran medical team led to significant blood loss that caused the severe brain injury, according to the suit. Askew’s infected right leg became gangrenous and required amputation.

Askew, a father of three, is now paralyzed and mostly noncommunicative.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey presided over a two-day trial in October and on Monday split an award with $6.8 million to Askew and $1.5 million to his wife, Beulah, his primary caregiver.

“She did quite a good job of raising her kids. She is now raising a child, who is her husband, who will never grow up,” said the Askews’ attorney, David Damick of St. Louis. “Sometimes he is very depressed when he realizes what he can’t do.”

The lead attorney representing Cochran, Nicholas Llewellyn of the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.

Damick said the Askews hope to move from their south St. Louis house they share with their daughter’s family into a more wheelchair-accessible home.

“If the government pays it will enable them after more than four years to get the care that Dirk needs and a little bit of relief for his wife,” Damick said.

The case marks the latest claim of negligence at John Cochran after years of problems with staffing and sterilization. A Florida man sued the hospital in February claiming he was unnecessarily treated with radiation and chemotherapy for months after a misdiagnosis of lymphoma. The case is ongoing.

A nurse in Cochran’s intensive care unit was banned from treating patients after injecting one patient with a potentially lethal dose of the painkiller fentanyl and other “egregious acts resulting in death or near death of patients” in 2010, according to a report from the VA Office of Inspector General.

Another investigation into the 2010 death of a 58-year-old man found that a nurse did not recognize or report that the man receiving kidney dialysis had become unresponsive during a five-hour treatment session.

More than 1,800 veterans were notified in 2010 that they might have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis or other viruses because of inadequate sterilization procedures in the dental clinic. No illnesses have been linked to the potential exposure.

The hospital shut down its operating rooms in February 2011 after rust stains were found on surgical equipment. The rooms reopened after a month of cleaning and replacement of faulty equipment. The hospital has since hired additional nurses and other staff and opened a $7 million sterilization center.

Federal investigators found no major problems during their July 2012 visit to the John Cochran and Jefferson Barracks VA medical centers.


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