Did you know that rupture of an Achilles tendon can be fatal? This common injury has one potentially fatal but preventable complication: a blood clot can develop in the calf while the leg is immobilized for healing of the injury, and if the clot gets big enough, it can travel to the heart and cause what is called a pulmonary embolism.
The Achilles tendon is the ligament that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. When it ruptures, the patient must have the calf immobilized for several weeks. That can cause blood clots in as many as three in ten patients, because calf muscles when they flex act as a pump to help bring blood back toward the heart. Immobilized calf muscles allow the blood to pool in the deep veins of the leg and potentially clot.
Samuel Burton, a retired Coast Guard captain, died of such a clot, and a distinguished federal judge recently decided the death should not have happened. Judge Royce Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that orthopedic surgeons at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had committed malpractice by failing to warn Capt. Burton when they were treating his Achilles tendon rupture about the risks of this blood clot and what he should do if he developed any of the symptoms of a clot.
When Capt. Burton died, his widow was shocked to learn from the medical examiner who performed the autopsy that two episodes of chest pain and shortness of breath, which Captain Burton had experienced in the weeks before his death, were signs of a potential pulmonary embolism. None of the doctors at Walter Reed had ever warned Captain Burton or his wife of this possible deadly complication and what to watch out for. She sued the government for medical malpractice under the Federal Tort Claims Act. After a trial, Judge Lamberth issued a verdict in favor of the widow, and he ordered the government to pay her $2,080,000. Judge Lamberth concluded that if the doctors had properly educated the patient and his wife, they were responsible people who would have appreciated the need to get to a hospital for treatment before it was too late. Both Captain Burton and his wife had assumed that his two episodes of pain and windedness were from deconditioning because he had resumed some physical activities after being off his feet for weeks.
The judge rejected Walter Reed’s defense that since statistics showed that only about one in one hundred Achilles rupture patients died of pulmonary embolism, they didn’t need to be warned about the risk.
Captain Burton’s family was represented in their medical malpractice case by Patrick Malone & Associates.
Read the judge’s decision here.