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Fetal Loss Lawsuit Cites Faulty Ultrasounds

February 18, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Obstetric Ultrasound, Practice Management
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A military family has filed a $1.7 million lawsuit over a heartbreaking incident in which two apparently inaccurate ultrasound scans led to a mistakenly terminated pregnancy.

A third ultrasound—performed, unlike the other two, in the radiology department—showed a healthy fetus. According to the lawsuit, the surgeon who terminated the pregnancy never saw the results of the third ultrasound.

An article Sunday in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper of Norfolk, Virginia, tells the following story, based on medical records, court documents, and interviews with Charles and Heather Fergurson and their lawyers:

In April 2011, Heather Fergurson, now 32, arrived for a prenatal checkup at USAF Hospital Langley on Joint Base Langley-Eustis near Hampton, Virginia. A certified nurse midwife performed an ultrasound but couldn’t hear a heartbeat or see a fetus. Obstetrician-gynecologist Beverly Reed, MD, performed another ultrasound with the same result.

Dr. Reed said she suspected a molar pregnancy—in which a mass of overproduced pre-placental tissue forms inside the uterus. Rare cases can result in fast-growing, metastatic cancer. The doctor recommended blood tests and a more comprehensive ultrasound, performed by the radiology department. If that ultrasound confirmed a molar pregnancy, a chest X-ray would be performed to see whether cancerous cells had spread to the lungs.

After the third ultrasound, the radiologic technologist said that a chest X-ray would not be performed and that the obstetrician-gynecologist would reveal the results of the ultrasound. Heather Fergurson said:

She looked me square in the face and smiled. I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘what’s going on?’—that everything was not what it was seeming to be.

Before the Fergursons could see the ob-gyn, a woman who worked in administration said a surgeon would be able to remove the mass right away. The Fergursons said they had been told to see the ob-gyn about the third ultrasound. The administrator said the surgeon, identified in the lawsuit as James A. Reed, MD, would review the ultrasound and other tests before surgery.

The couple said they specifically asked Dr. Reed (no relation to Beverly Reed) what the third ultrasound showed and why the chest X-ray had been canceled. They said the doctor told them the blood tests and Heather Fergurson’s history of miscarriages indicated a molar pregnancy that needed to be removed. He said the chest X-ray could be done later if needed. “We were made to think it was so critical it needed to be done because these cells were going rampant,” said Charles Fergurson, an Army sergeant major.

Heather Fergurson had the surgery. Two days later, the hospital told her that she had been carrying a healthy 10.7-week-old fetus and that the third ultrasound had confirmed its existence. The lawsuit says hospital records do not indicate that Dr. James Reed received the results of the third ultrasound or sought them. Dr. Reed left a note on the chart saying he knew nothing about the third ultrasound.

After their claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act was denied, the Fergursons filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Spokespeople for the U.S Attorney’s Office and the hospital declined to comment. So did Dr. Beverly Reed. The Virginian-Pilot could not reach Dr. James Reed.

In an e-mail, Heather Fergurson said to the newspaper about Dr. James Reed, “I trusted his knowledge over my own ‘still small voice.’ And I will regret that for the rest of my life.”

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Related seminar: Advances in Fetal and Neonatal Imaging

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