The supervising anesthesiologist in a surgery at UW Health that left a 6-week-old Fitchburg boy permanently brain damaged has been reprimanded by the state medical board, after a lawsuit against a junior doctor involved in the same surgery resulted in a $22.5 million payment from a state malpractice fund.
Dr. Ann Ruscher was reprimanded last month by the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board for her role in the 2016 surgery at UW’s American Family Children’s Hospital. Dr. Michael Chalifoux, who was completing his last year of residency in anesthesia at the time, was named in the lawsuit by the boy’s family that led to the settlement payment two years ago.
The $22.5 million award, mostly for the boy’s long-term care, is the second-largest payment by the state Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, according to state records going back to 1996.
Venkatasathvik Mallidi had surgery for a tethered cord, a birth defect in which the spinal cord is stuck to surrounding tissue. The surgery was successful, but the boy had brain damage from the anesthesia, according to a lawsuit filed in Dane County Circuit Court.
Ruscher gave the boy a “relatively high dose” of the anesthetic propofol after he initially had “elevated” blood pressure, according to the medical board order. The baby later developed “critically low” blood pressure and suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation, the order says.
Ruscher left the operating room during the surgery but was nearby and available by phone, the order says. Chalifoux had been trained to call her if problems arose but he didn’t, despite low or unobtainable blood pressure readings, the order says.
Chalifoux was three months from completing his residency but had not participated in a surgery involving a tethered cord or a small infant, the order says.
Attorneys for Ruscher declined comment Tuesday. Chalifoux, an anesthesiologist at Baystate Health in Springfield, Massachusetts, and his attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ruscher is no longer with UW Health after a voluntary retirement, spokesperson Emily Kumlien said. John Zwieg, one of Ruscher’s attorneys, said she is working but declined to say where.
“While this matter has been legally resolved, UW Health is aware of the painful reality of this situation, and we continue to offer our deepest compassion to the Mallidi family,” Kumlien said.
The medical board has not taken action against Chalifoux, who according to court records argued that Ruscher was responsible for the injury.
The state, which oversees the fund that is generated by doctor fees and covers malpractice payments of more than $1 million for all doctors in Wisconsin, also argued that Ruscher was primarily responsible. That stance could have resulted in a much smaller payment because Ruscher was a UW-Madison employee, for whom there is a malpractice cap of $250,000. But the state ended up settling for the $22.5 million award involving Chalifoux.
A state law limits malpractice awards for non-economic damages, or pain and suffering, to $750,000 in all cases. If that cap didn’t exist, the Mallidi award might have been larger, according to Dan Rottier, the family’s attorney.
The boy, now 5, is blind, can’t walk or speak and will likely function permanently at the level of a 2-year-old, Rottier has said.