The Cleveland woman had been seeing the same physician for 16 years. For about the past 10 years, Tanya Higgins had told her doctor, repeatedly, that she had a family history of breast cancer -- her mother, her aunts and others in her immediate family had had the disease.
She asked for a screening mammogram, but her doctor, ignoring cancer-prevention guidelines, said, "You don't need one till your 40."
Even after Tanya developed symptoms in her lymph nodes and had biopsies, her doctor kept saying no to a screening mammogram, "Not till you're 40."
"She was very adamant about it," Higgins says.
A lump that Higgins found when she was 39 led to another biopsy, and, then, the worst possible news.
An oncologist told her she had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
"I just went blank," she says. "I didn't hear anything else.
"Now I have to fight for my life."
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She trusted her longtime doctor, and, today, at 41 with two children heading for college, she doesn't know how much time she has left.
"I'm paying for her negligence," Higgins says.
Another doctor's negligence cost Marjorie Hribar her life, says Hribar's daughter, Melanie Nicolaidis.
Marjorie, who was 80, suffered from occasional back pain. She went to see Dr. Abdul Itani at LakeWest Hospital in the spring of 2010. In her first meeting with him, an appointment that lasted 15 minutes, he said she should have a back operation.
Nicolaidis said he told her, " 'Otherwise she will be, in six months, in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.' He said she might as well get the doors widened for a wheelchair. It was a scare tactic."
But it was an effective one, because, as Nicolaidis explains, her mother was an active woman who had just traveled to Egypt with her a few months before, and together they planned a trip to Trieste in the fall.
Hribar and her family also were concerned because she had a family history of blood clots. Her son had died on his 45th birthday of a pulmonary embolism, and Hribar herself had had several deep vein thromboses as well as multiple blood clots in her lungs. All patients are at high risk after surgery for developing blood clots -- but more so those who have had a history of them.
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Still, because of Itani's wheelchair threat, said Nicolaidis, "she scheduled the surgery." The doctor, as is normally recommended before surgery, had her stop taking the blood thinner Coumadin about a week before the procedure.
Afterward, though, he didn't put her back on it or on any other blood thinner. Itani performed one more minor surgery, working on the original incision, and even after that surgery he did not give Hribar any blood thinners.
Many doctors, knowing that a patient is at risk of blood clots, put them on Heparin, another blood thinner. Both Hribar and her daughter began to panic that Hribar could develop a clot. They tried to ask Itani about it but he wouldn't talk to them. Nicolaidis said other doctors at LakeWest Hospital told her that her mother should be on Heparin, but that Itani would not take advice from anyone else. Itani remained firm in his refusal, according to his deposition in a lawsuit about Hribar's death.
Then a few days after the surgery, Hribar's heart stopped. Nicolaidis said Itani ordered her out of her mother's hospital room. Then he pronounced her dead. Later, he told her cousin, standing next to Nicolaidis in a hallway, that Hribar probably had a myocardial infarction -- a heart attack.
"You know how these things happen," he said.
Nicolaidis asked for an autopsy. It showed her mother died from a massive double block pulmonary embolism -- it was exactly the outcome she and her mother had feared.
"He held all the power," Nicolaidis said. "I should still have my mother with me."
Itani, 72, has moved to Florida and could not be reached for comment. He has given up his license to practice medicine in Ohio. In a deposition taken in January in Florida, he said he was suffering from dementia.
Patients or their families have few options following what they believe is negligence or a wrongful death than to file a lawsuit, as Hribar's family has against Itani. Some patients also file complaints with the Ohio state medical board.
One of the biggest issues the medical board has had to deal with in recent years is doctors who are either negligently or illegally writing prescriptions -- or who are not considering the fact that pain medication is highly addictive and then writing a prescription for far more pills than a patient might need to use.
Consider what happened to Ashley, a young woman who had abdominal surgery in 2009. Her doctor gave her several months' worth of Percocet for post-surgical pain. But Percocet is widely known to be a highly addictive drug, and when Ashley suddenly stopped taking it, her body -- though she didn't know it -- went into withdrawal.
"I just felt so sick," she recalls. "It was like the worst flu."
When she took the Percocet, she felt better. When she ran out, she got some wherever she could -- buying it from friends, then on the street from drug dealers. Ashley, who had never even had a problem with alcohol before, had become a hardcore opiate addict in a matter of months.
"It was the quickest downward, it wasn't even a spiral, it was just straight down like an arrow," she says. "I went through some of the darkest times of my life. I did things I would never, ever think I would have ever done to the people I love."
It took detox and rehab at Cleveland's Rosary Hall to get her on the path to recovery.
She doesn't blame her doctor, she says, but adds, "I want doctors to know that you can take someone who was living a normal life and turn it into a nightmare -- without doing it on purpose and even unknowingly doing it."
Among the top three complaints against doctors investigated by the Ohio state medical board:
- Doctors writing inappropriate prescriptions to patients, nonpatients, themselves and family members.
- Physicians impaired due to alcohol, drugs or mental illness.
- Doctors who sexually abuse their patients, as in the notorious case of Dr. James Bressi of Hudson, who is now facing a 23-count indictment based on sexual assaults of 10 women (though more than a hundred female victims have come forward).
Aaron Haslam is the new executive director of the Ohio state medical board. A former prosecutor who worked with Attorney General Mike DeWine to bust Ohio "pill mills," Haslam, who started his job in July, says he wants the board to respond more swiftly than ever when it comes to investigating complaints about doctors.
"We owe it to the public to do it as quickly as possible for their protection," says Haslam.
A check of board records over the years shows that in the past, the board has given kid-glove treatment to drug-addicted or drug-peddling doctors, but Haslam and DeWine say that has changed.
"We've taken the license of 35 doctors since I became attorney general," says DeWine, referring to the past two years.
Taking a look at disciplinary actions taken by the board against doctors writing illegal prescriptions shows the number has increased ten-fold since 2007.
"We have physicians out there that are hiding behind their medical licenses that are nothing more than drug traffickers," says Haslam. "The challenge is making cases push through here much more quickly and prioritizing which cases are more important than others.
"I won't tolerate backlogs. The board shares that same mentality with me. We owe it to the public to do it as quickly as possible for their protection," he said.
Haslam said he knows that many people don't know that they can file a complaint about their physician.
"We want to get the word out about that," he says. "We encourage the public to contact us if they have concerns about a particular doctor."
WKYC's Bad Medicine investigation reveals disciplinary actions taken against medical professionals who are subject to review by the Ohio Medical Board.
Our investigation uncovers more than 150 doctors and other licensed medical workers who faced discipline between 2008 and 2013. Search our director here - http://bit.ly/FindMyDoctor