25 January 2010
Dangers Of Spinal Surgery
'The drill slipped and my life changed completely'
January 25, 2010
HELEN KERNER trusted her "nice, clean-cut" neurosurgeon when he said he had performed the delicate spinal operation she required 1500 times before.
The 60-year-old was confused when she woke up incontinent, still in pain, with no feeling in her legs or pelvis, and upset when he tried to discharge her from hospital two days into recovery.
But when Suresh Surendranath Nair confessed that his "drill slipped" during the procedure, severing several nerves in her spine, Ms Kerner said she felt sorry for the doctor, who was then 38.
"I felt like 'my goodness me, he must be feeling awful for what he's done'," Ms Kerner said. "But not now, not now, I'm pretty angry now."
The Health Care Complaints Commission is reportedly reviewing all surgery performed at Nepean Public Hospital under the direction of Dr Nair, 41, who faces drugs charges following the death in November of a 22-year-old student in his $1.7 million apartment.
Sydney West Area Health Service has admitted a breach of duty of care in Ms Kerner's case.
Another neurosurgeon described the procedure, performed in 2006, as a standard operation and said Dr Nair's mistake was ''usually so rare as to be virtually unheard of''.
The Malaysian-born, Australian-trained surgeon's registration had been suspended in 2004, after an appearance before the NSW Medical Board's Impaired Registrants Panel.
He was suspended again in 2008 and on November 26 last year, following his arrest.
Ms Kerner, a former relief manager at Anglicare second-hand shops, said she did not know Dr Nair had been suspended when she was referred to him in 2006. "I had very bad back pain, sciatic pain, and all the doctor had to do was remove a bone spur away from the nerve, just grind it away from the nerve," Ms Kerner said. "The drill slipped … and my life changed, completely changed.''
Sydney West Area Health Service would not comment.
Dr Nair's solicitor, Mitchell Cavanagh, said he was not aware of the case and had not yet been able to discuss it with his client.
Ms Kerner, formerly a keen dancer and gardener, now uses walking sticks because she cannot feel her left leg and her foot is deformed. She is bowel and bladder incontinent, has lost all sexual function and lives with constant, severe pain in her legs and feet, according to a statement of claim filed in the NSW Supreme Court.
"I'm very depressed. I wake up in the morning crying sometimes … I'm very embarrassed to go out because of things that happen,'' she said. "That's my life now. I don't have one."
Ms Kerner said she knew something was wrong as soon as she woke up. "I spoke to Dr Nair the next morning and he didn't tell me he slipped with the drill … He told me [he] stretched one of the nerves and it had to be repaired," she said.
"He said within three months it should heal itself and I believed him because he's my doctor."
Her confusion was compounded when Dr Nair tried to have her discharged from hospital two days after the procedure, before she had been seen by an continence adviser or physiotherapist.
It was not until Ms Kerner noticed the word "severed" written on her observation chart that she pressed for answers.
At a meeting Ms Kerner said she attended with her then partner, the hospital's nursing manager and a clinical liaison officer, Dr Nair confessed his mistake.
"I said, 'But you didn't tell me that before' and he said, 'Yes I did' … " she said.
At a second meeting attended, according to Ms Kerner, by her continence adviser and a friend, two hospital administrators told her she could sue for negligence.
Legal proceedings began in November 2008 and Sydney West Area Health Services wrote to Ms Kerner's solicitor on November 3 last year, admitting a breach of duty of care.
"As far as I'm concerned the hospital should have got rid of him at the start, in 2004," Ms Kerner said. "If he was gone I wouldn't be like this."
Dr Nair has been in police custody since January 9 after he breached his bail conditions, which prohibited him from hiring prostitutes or taking illicit drugs. He is due in court on March 1.
The State Coroner is also investigating the death of an escort, Victoria McIntyre, whose body was found in Dr Nair's apartment last February.
A NSW Supreme Court hearing in July will determine what compensation and damages NSW Health must pay Ms Kerner.