The wife of a retired Navy chief hospital corpsman has filed a claim against the government alleging her severe, constant pain is caused by a needle that has been lodged in her spine since it broke off during anesthesia at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Florida, 14 years ago.
She wasn’t told about the needle when it happened, she said.
After 14 years of misdiagnoses for her pain, Amy Bright found out in November 2017 as a result of a CT scan at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center that she has a 3-centimeter needle sticking out of her spine, three-fourths of the way through a bone, and causing permanent nerve damage. She has had chronic left-sided sciatica, hip and lower back pain for nearly a decade and a half.
And because the needle has been there for so long, doctors have told her, it’s too risky to remove it, Bright said during a Thursday news conference in Jacksonville.
The spinal anesthesia was administered to Bright before a planned Cesarean section when her youngest son, Jacob, was born at the Navy hospital on Sept. 5, 2003. At the time of the alleged incident, Bright was 27 and her husband, Charles, was stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
Bright’s claim accuses the hospital staff of failing to provide proper anesthesia care and treatment and failing to properly insert a spinal anesthesia needle, resulting in breaking off the needle in her spine; failing to inform Bright what had happened; and failing to remove the needle.
“This represents a cowardly, unethical cover-up by personnel at Naval Hospital Jacksonville,” said Bright’s attorney, Sean Cronin, of Jacksonville.
Navy officials referred questions to the Justice Department because the matter is in litigation; Justice officials declined to comment. A response to the allegations was not immediately available from officials at Naval Hospital Jacksonville.
During the procedure, a needle is normally placed halfway into the spinal canal, where the numbing medication is injected. In Bright’s case, however, “the medical provider jammed the needle … across the spinal canal and into her spine,” Cronin said. He said personnel would have known the needle had broken because it’s marked on the end, and anesthesia providers look at the tip when they pull out the needle to make sure it’s there. The needles are 9 centimeters long, and a third of it broke off, Cronin said.
“They’re supposed to tell her, record it in the medical records, and have [the needle] surgically removed. They chose to look the other way and left her in this condition,” Cronin said.
When Bright awoke from the anesthesia, she had pain in her left leg.
Bright, now 41, said she was devastated when she found out in November that there was broken-off needle in her back that had caused her the pain for 14 years.
“I was super livid,” she said. “I was so mad that they hid this from me and covered it up for all these years ... and said, ‘You just have a bad back.’”
She said doesn’t know why a scan wasn’t ordered earlier. The family has lived in several places since her husband retired from the Navy in 2005, and has settled in San Antonio.
”For years they were saying, here, take this Motrin, have this back patch,” she said. “And every year it gets worse and worse, the burning.”
Bright said her constant leg pain makes it difficult to sleep and sit. Trying to watch her 14-year-old son’s football game from the bleachers “is terrible,” she said: “It burns my whole bottom of my back. My sciatica is on fire. ... On occasion it shoots down the side of my leg and down into my foot.”
Therapy twice a week hasn’t helped relieve the pain, she said, and her thrice-daily medication slows her down.
“I’m speechless that this was not disclosed to this woman. This is complete gross malpractice, and frankly, a crime,” Cronin said.
The claim alleges medical malpractice, fraud and negligent concealment. The government will have six months to respond; if a settlement isn’t reached, Cronin will file suit against the federal government.
Families, including those of active-duty members, can sue the government for negligence under the Federal Torts Claims Act. Bright’s claim was submitted to the Tort Claims Unit in Norfolk, Virginia. Active-duty members can’t sue the government for personal injuries caused by the negligence of military members because of what’s known as the Feres doctrine, the result of a 1950 Supreme Court decision.
For the last 14 years, Bright has been misdiagnosed and told she has an underlying back condition, that it was “in her head,” Cronin said.
“She’s been sentenced to a lifetime of pain and worry, and now she finds out she doesn’t have a bad back, that this was a medical mistake … and she’s left to deal with it,” he said.
“The cowards that did this didn’t tell her, and allowed this to continue. ... The entire situation is just completely outrageous, and unacceptable that this would happen her.”
Bright said she never thought that her back pain could have been caused by something that happened at the Navy hospital.
“This is not one of the situations where you go, ‘Oh, maybe they left a needle in my back,’” Cronin said. “This so outside the pale of normal malpractice. I do this all the time. ... I’ve never seen a piece of needle that’s broken off and left in someone’s spine.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.