Durban anaesthetist fined and suspended over death of patient who fell into coma during eye operation

2012-05-15 00:00

A DURBAN man, who died seven weeks after a botched cataract extraction had returned from the UK for the procedure because it was cheaper at home.

The decision proved fatal and left a devastated Allison Fordyce with nothing but a lifetime of memories and the ashes of her 70-year-old husband, Ian.

Yesterday anaesthetist Dr Leon Rheeder was suspended from practising by the regulatory Health Professions Council of South Africa for an effective three months.

Rheeder admitted he left the theatre at Crompton Hospital in Pinetown on February 1, 2010, for a few minutes to go to the toilet while Fordyce was having a cataract removed from his right eye.

In his absence Fordyce suffered a “hypoxic-ischemic event” in reaction to the drug Ultiva. His brain was starved of oxygen and he slipped into a coma. He died on March 22, having never awoken.

Rheeder refused to comment after his hearing, but he confirmed he would appeal his sanction, delivered by chairperson Dolan Singh. Apart from the suspension, he was ordered to pay a R50 000 fine.

In attendance was Fordyce’s son Scot, who declared himself happy with the outcome. “I would have preferred [an effective] six-month suspension, but I’m happy with the sentencing as it is. Hopefully, he will learn from this.”

Scot told The Witness his parents had moved to the UK to live with his sister, Tracey. His dad had come back for a year to finalise the sale of their house and to have cataract surgery.

“It was going to be cheaper here than in the UK, so he decided to do it in South Africa.”

The cause of death may never be established. There was no evidence led in this regard during the hearing, nor did any emerge in a civil action brought against Rheeder by Fordyce’s family. The court matter was settled behind closed doors, with Rheeder’s medical indemnity insurers paying R395 000 for medical costs.

Singh said Rheeder clearly failed in his duty to provide suitable care to Fordyce.

“It is inescapable there has been negligence on your part … It is disappointing a doctor of your esteem … would falter.”

Since 1991 Rheeder has sedated more than 52 000 patients.

His legal representative, advocate Mathew Swain, read out a plea statement in which Rheeder acknowledged he bore “primary responsibility” for monitoring Fordyce.

But in arguing mitigation of sentence, Swain reserved some of the blame for a nursing assistant, who was told by Rheeder to monitor Fordyce while he went to relieve himself.

According to Rheeder’s statement, the nurse — with an “obligation” to assist him — left the operating room shortly after him, and during their absences, Fordyce went into distress.

The committee’s legal assessor Paul Samuels challenged the line of argument, saying delegating responsibility to a nurse could not exonerate Rheeder.

The council’s legal adviser, Charles Lamola, called on the committee to give Rheeder a suspended sentence. “It will hang over his head like a sword of Damocles and ensure that he stays and henceforth practises medicine in accordance with laid-down rules and regulations of council.”

In the end Rheeder was barred from practising for a year, nine months of which were suspended, in addition to the fine. Rheeder was given 21 days to appeal his sentence, which he indicated he would do.

A member of the adjudicating committee later said the case pointed to a real need for monitoring standards set by the regulatory body, particularly in private hospitals where the “background is money”.

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