ST. CLOUD – For 50 years, Sandy Schwegman has been an institution at St. Cloud Hospital. A nurse at its family birthing center, she joked that she brought half of Stearns County’s newborns into the world.
She loves her job, which made it all the more painful to sue the health care system she devotedly served for decades because allegedly negligent cancer treatment left her with permanent injuries.
In 2014, Schwegman was treated for breast cancer. After a month, she noticed burns on her shoulder, neck, jaw and ear. A few weeks later, she lost mobility in her left arm and had trouble swallowing.
Schwegman, 76, and six other patients at Coborn Cancer Center in St. Cloud filed lawsuits for botched therapy plans that left them under- or over-radiated and potentially at increased risk of cancer recurrence. The total number of lawsuits is expected to grow to 17 by the end of the year.
“When I met with a quality assurance nurse to discuss my pain, I was told the injuries were insignificant,” she said. “But the pain is like somebody lit you on fire. What they did was wrong.”
The center, CentraCare Health System and Dr. Barbi Kaplan-Frenkel were named as defendants in the suits, which were filed in Stearns County District Court. Because the cases are ongoing, CentraCare can’t comment, said Anthony Gardner, vice president of marketing and communications.
The Star Tribune reported in July 2015 that the Minnesota Department of Health was investigating Coborn Cancer Center over errant doses of radiation given to patients. The three mistakes, called medical events, were self-reported by the center to the state.
The department reviewed 25 percent of the patient files for tomotherapy procedures at the center from October 2013 to October 2014. The review found two unreported medical events.
The state then required the center to review all 196 patient files for tomotherapy procedures at the center during the same time period. In a November 2015 letter, the state informed center officials that the corrective actions to prevent future medical events were acceptable. The center will be inspected early next year.
The radiation errors were discovered after several employees connected to patient radiation treatment plans raised concerns. An internal audit by CentraCare found variances in treatment plans for a “small number” of patients.
Letters were sent to those patients. CentraCare President Kenneth Holmen told the Star Tribune in 2015 that the patients didn’t suffer serious injuries.
Staffing and protocol changes were made and personnel with leadership roles in the radiation oncology department at Coborn, including Kaplan-Frenkel, are no longer employed at CentraCare. She hadn’t seen patients at CentraCare since November 2014.
The plaintiffs are represented by Meshbesher & Spence. The Minneapolis-based law firm has received nearly 40 telephone calls from concerned cancer patients.
Josh Tuchscherer, an attorney with the firm, said they tried to privately resolve negligence claims with CentraCare, but “they have been uncooperative.”
“We couldn’t get any response, so people decided to file lawsuits,” he said. “CentraCare’s legal response is that the company isn’t at fault or the injuries were caused by another medical condition. They need to take responsibility.”
In her lawsuit, Schwegman said she met with CentraCare representatives in April 2015. At the meeting, she alleged that CentraCare admitted that Kaplan-Frenkel’s treatment plan was improper. She was both over and underexposed to radiation, and that the radiation provided represented a departure from accepted standards of practice.
“Nobody is listening to us,” Schwegman said.
Betty Zollner, 80, has also filed suit against CentraCare. Misfired radiation burned healthy tissue in her spine, and she had to move out of her longtime Paynesville home into assisted living because she is losing her ability to walk.
An active dancer who traveled around the world before the radiation miscue, she now uses a walker in combination with a motorized scooter.
“People ask if I broke my hip,” she said. “I tell them my spine was injured during radiation. They don’t understand.”
Zollner is receiving chemotherapy to battle cancer that has spread to her bones. She always was optimistic about fighting her disease, but is angered that her treatment permanently changed her life. Her lack of mobility has made her somewhat of a shut-in, she said.
“I hoped that CentraCare would have done what was fair. That’s what they said publicly,” she said. “Maybe they are just waiting for us to die off so they won’t have to pay up.”
Zollner is frustrated that she had to take legal steps to get the company’s attention. “I trusted them to take care of me. Money can’t fix me,” she said.
Christmas usually would have been at her house, but she had to move to a small apartment. It’s hard to travel, and she knows she will need more assistance as she gets older.
“I’m not going to cry about it; I can’t control it,” she said. “But I do have a lot of faith.”
Schwegman plans to retire in six months. When the radiation burns started to show, she was embarrassed to discuss it with colleagues.
And then the pain started in her shoulder, a shooting sensation so bad that she believed she was having a heart attack.
When she received a letter from CentraCare about the radiation errors, she was angry. The salt in the wound was when CentraCare staff repeatedly told her injuries were insignificant.
“It feels like nobody cares what they did to you,” she said. “I just want the pain to go away.”