Family of woman in vegetative state loses suit against NUH and neurosurgeon

Family of woman in vegetative state loses suit against NUH and neurosurgeon

SINGAPORE - The family of an elderly woman, who is in a vegetative state following surgery in June 2014 to remove a brain tumour, has lost a negligence suit against the National University Hospital (NUH) and its head neurosurgeon.

The family of Madam Goh Guan Sin was also ordered to pay her hospital bills, which amounted to $397,478.78 as of July 26 this year and continues to be incurred.

Madam Goh, 70, has been hospitalised at NUH since her operation and her family has repeatedly rejected the hospital's suggestion to move her to a step-down care facility.

The lawsuit, filed in 2017 on her behalf by one of her daughters, initially alleged that Dr Yeo Tseng Tsai and NUH were negligent before, during and after her operation.

When the trial started in April this year, the claims of negligence during the operation were dropped. At the end of the 32-day trial in October, the claims of negligence before the operation were also abandoned.

In a 205-page judgment on Wednesday (Nov 27), High Court judge Tan Siong Thye said the family did not pursue allegations of pre-operation negligence because they realised the "futility" of this claim after the issues were thoroughly ventilated in court.

He concluded that Dr Yeo and NUH were not negligent before or after the operation, and allowed NUH's counterclaim for the unpaid bills.

In his judgment, Justice Tan said: "After a successful surgery, the world of the plaintiff and her family was turned upside down... This is tragic and it is understandable that the plaintiff's family finds it tremendously difficult to accept the dreadful outcome."

He said he deeply empathised with the frustration and disappointment of the family towards the surgical team.

"But justice must be meted out according to the rule of law and not the feelings of the heart in order to reach a fair outcome based on the merits and facts of this case," he said.

Citing a news report in which a woman in the United Arab Emirates woke up after 27 years in a coma, he said he hoped "one day, a miracle will wake up the plaintiff from her deep slumber".

In May 2014, Madam Goh was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was advised by Dr Ho Kee Hang, a visiting consultant at NUH, to remove the tumour.

A second opinion confirmed this and the surgery was scheduled for June 2, 2014.

Her case was presented at the neurosurgery division's weekly discussion. At the meeting, Dr Ho, who was undergoing cataract surgery a few days before Madam Goh's operation, asked Dr Yeo to do the surgery.

An appointment was made for Madam Goh to see Dr Yeo on May 27 but she did not turn up.

After an uneventful operation, her condition deteriorated, and a CT scan showed a massive blood clot .

Dr Yeo and the two neurosurgeons in his team concluded that there was a bleed in the brain stem. They felt her chance of recovery was poor and instead of high-risk surgery to remove the clot, they inserted a shunt to drain fluid that had accumulated in the brain.

In the lawsuit, the family alleged that Dr Yeo failed to obtain Madam Goh's informed consent and failed to see her personally before the surgery.

The family claimed Dr Yeo misdiagnosed the blood clot, which they felt should have been surgically removed.

The family also alleged NUH failed to monitor Madam Goh's condition adequately after the operation.

Justice Tan, however, found Madam Goh was adequately advised about the risks of the surgery by the doctors in the NUH team.

He said Dr Yeo's failure to see Madam Goh before the surgery must be viewed in the light of her failure to turn up for the May 27, 2014 appointment.

The judge said he was satisfied the frequency of the post-operation monitoring was adequate.

Dr Yeo, in a statement through his lawyer Lek Siang Pheng, said he was happy to be vindicated by the court.

"Truly, I am very sorry for the eventual poor outcome for Madam Goh, but I know my team and I at the NUH have done our very best for her," he added.

He also said it was regrettable that the family relied on "wrong medical expert opinions" and decided to sue instead of accepting his honest explanation for her outcome.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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