A Dakota County jury on Thursday evening found that a St. Paul physician was not negligent in the 2005 death of a 23-year-old patient six days after he had removed her varicose veins with laser surgery.

The jury did award the family of Mita Smith $222,000 for past and future damages, including loss of companionship, for her family, including her 8-year-old son. They will collect nothing, however, because there has been no finding of negligence.

Dr. Richard Aizpuru, the interventional radiologist named in the suit, and St. Paul Radiology's Vein Center contended that nobody knows what caused the heart damage and heart attack that killed Smith, of Eagan, formerly of St. Paul.

A forensic pathologist had testified that the heart damage occurred 24 to 48 hours before Smith died.

"We're maintaining that we provided appropriate care," defense attorney Barbara Zurek, who represented Aizpuru and the Vein Center, said during the trial.

But an attorney for Smith's family said that the damage was triggered by a racing heart that came on after surgery and that Smith had been in good health before that. The family maintained that the physician and his nurse provided a cocktail of local anesthetic and sedatives in excessive amounts, causing heart damage to Mita Smith.

Harvey Friedenson, attorney for Smith's family, said there was negligence in the administration of drugs, in monitoring her condition, and in a failure by Aizpuru to refer Smith to a cardiologist or other care.

Had the doctor been found negligent, the family could have been awarded millions of dollars.

The family is now considering filing a motion for a new trial, alleging irregularities in the origin of some of the evidence produced in court about a medical bill for the drugs used during surgery, Friedenson said.

"This is a devastating blow for the family," Friedenson said of the verdict.

Smith's mother, Mary Roser, of St. Paul, said she had waited four years to take the case to trial.

"It's over for me," she said Thursday evening, after the jury deliberated less than three hours.

After surgery, a struggle

Mita Smith grew up streetwise in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, intending to go far beyond it once she got out of high school.

She moved out of her single mother's home and worked two, sometimes three, jobs. At 23, she bought a townhouse in Eagan, where she raised her toddler and provided a home for her disabled sister. She was being groomed for a promotion at her job at Blue Cross-Blue Shield and had completed a third of the college credits she needed to become a human resources assistant.

But pregnancy combined with hours on her feet as a waitress had contributed to severe varicose veins. They hurt. So Smith went for a laser vein removal on May 6, 2005. She had tried to get one leg done a week earlier in Aizpuru's Mendota office, but the veins were too severe and the surgery too painful without anesthesia, so the procedure was rescheduled.

Dr. Aizpuru instead performed surgery on both legs at United Hospital in St. Paul. His nurse prepared a mixture containing the painkiller lidocaine.

The night after her surgery, Smith went to the emergency room, where her heart was found to be racing and her white blood count elevated. A chest X-ray found nothing wrong with her lungs, but she was admitted for three days.

She went home on May 10 and on the 11th went to appointments with her general physician, Dr. Richard Krueger, and Aizpuru. She was panting and having great difficulty moving about, said Smith's mother, Roser.

Roser said she told Aizpuru's nurse, Donna Ring, that Smith was having trouble breathing and that her legs were cold. The nurse suggested that she try open-toed stockings instead of closed-toe as a remedy.

The nurse had seemed to think that Smith was being overly dramatic, Roser said. Ring told Smith that she "needed to buck up," and that a 70-year-old women who had had the surgery was recovering faster, Roser testified.

In her testimony, Ring said she never made such a comment.

Roser had testified that Smith's attempts to get help were not addressed by medical staff for days, though the young mother was in pain, unable to take more than a few steps and having difficulty breathing. Her daughter could take only a few steps, which she would do while holding onto a wheelchair. Otherwise, she would crawl, resting several times before she could cross a room, Roser said.

"She didn't want to eat, not take the medication, she just wanted to lay down," the mother said on the stand.

When asked to describe her plucky daughter's personality, Roser broke into tears.

At 6:30 in the morning on May 13, 2005, Smith's boyfriend found her dead in her bed. The cause of death was heart damage. What caused it remains unclear.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017