Wednesday, June 13,
By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
They were a typical Navy family at first.
In 1976, nuclear machinist's mate Ken Rigby joined the crew of the USS George Bancroft, a ballistic missile submarine cruising out of a Spanish port. He spent months at sea while his wife, Cynthia, raised the first of their three children at home in Charleston, S.C.
But then Rigby got sick, first with a blood disorder in 1980 and then with multiple sclerosis that forced him out of the Navy in 1988.
Less then a decade later, he died at age 43, a few months after surgery at the VA Medical Center in Oakland.
Cynthia Rigby suspected a medication error at the VA caused her husband's death. In a federal wrongful death suit against the United States, she said the doctors mistakenly took him off aspirin and replaced it with a volatile drug that ended up killing him in December 1997.
U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose has now agreed, awarding Cynthia Rigby and her family more than $1.5 million for lost income, pain and suffering and funeral expenses.
Cynthia, 48, a drug and alcohol counselor from Jeannette, said yesterday she was less interested in the money than in the fact that she has been vindicated in her complaint.
"What I was really hoping for was that the judge would agree with me that there was an error made," she said. "Any amount she awarded would have meant she agreed with me."
The nonjury case, which Ambrose heard in January, focused on a drug called ticlopidine hydrochloride, sold as Ticlid, which is used to keep blood from clotting and causing strokes. Rigby had thrombocytosis, a blood condition in which the body produces too many platelets that make blood clot. Doctors at the VA gave him Ticlid for the disorder after a September 1997 leg operation to implant a surgical stent. He died three months later of multiple organ failure.
Cynthia Rigby said the doctors should have continued to give him aspirin after the procedure, an opinion supported by testimony from medical experts introduced by Rigby's lawyer, Carl Harvison.
"The doctors simply didn't appreciate the seriousness of this drug," Harvison said during the trial. "In fact, they were clueless about this drug."
Ambrose didn't go that far in her opinion.
But she did describe a scenario in which various doctors didn't communicate with each other about the appropriateness of Ticlid, with each thinking that someone else had investigated whether it was the right medication for Rigby. She also noted that no one told the Rigby family Ticlid was dangerous.
"I am persuaded that the decision to use Ticlid was made without investigation or analysis by either the vascular surgeons or the hematologists at the VAMC into whether it was justified under the circumstances," Ambrose wrote. "I am further persuaded that the medical staff's conduct in discontinuing the prescription of aspirin for Kenneth Rigby and replacing it with Ticlid, when [he] had tolerated aspirin for many years without complication, fell below the standard of care."
Government attorneys Mike Colville and Philip O'Connor, both assistants in the U.S. attorney's office in Pittsburgh, couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.
In closing arguments at the trial, Colville argued that the doctors did what they thought was best and attacked the credentials of Harvison's medical experts on the use of Ticlid.
"Did it have a risk? Yes," he told the judge. "What they had to do was weigh the risk."
The result was tragic, he said, but it didn't mean the doctors were negligent.
But Ambrose said the Ticlid prescription was a "substantial factor" in Rigby's death.
The award breaks down to $798,976 for Ken Rigby's lost income, $750,000 for pain and suffering and $7,660 for funeral expenses. The government fought to have the lost income reduced. But Ambrose said the Rigby family has suffered significant financial hardship without his veterans' and Social Security benefits.