As Eileen Kelleher waited in a pre-surgical suite at New Milford Hospital to meet the doctor who was about to open up her abdomen, an uneasy feeling came over the longtime nurse.
The operation would be the second in just over a year by Dr. Cameron Brown to treat Kelleher's crippling back pain. But this procedure would first require cutting into her belly to expose her vertebrae — and that surgery would be done by someone she didn't know: Dr. Ramon A. Mabasa.
Kelleher had faith in Dr. Brown. But not in Dr. Mabasa.
"After I met Dr. Mabasa, I said to my husband: 'Let's go. I don't want the surgery.' I didn't like him," she said.
Her husband, Dominick, talked her into going through with the operation — a decision he has regretted ever since.
During the 6 1/2 -hour procedure, Mabasa nicked an iliac artery supplying blood to Kelleher's legs, and later misdiagnosed the problem when recovery room nurses found her left leg to be pale, numb and pulseless.
Hours passed without medical intervention. And days later, the 59-year-old who loved to garden, roll around on the floor with her dog, Tabitha, and take long walks, was given the grim news: Her leg had been starved for blood too long, and would have to be amputated above the knee.
Although New Milford Hospital recently paid Kelleher $5.25 million for the June 2005 mishap, the hospital did not report the case to the state Department of Public Health as an adverse event. And the state did not investigate Kelleher's surgery until more than two years later, after the hospital took action on its own to keep Mabasa out of its operating rooms.
During that time, Mabasa botched at least three more operations, state investigators later concluded, including a failed colostomy that ultimately required the surgical removal of a patient's vagina, according to health department documents.
Mabasa, 72, received his medical degree in 1963 from the University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center in the Philippines, and still practices in New Milford. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Although New Milford Hospital's investigation led Mabasa to resign in April 2007, the state health department has allowed him to keep his license, but only on a limited basis. The doctor who specialized in abdominal surgeries is now confined to office-based procedures, such as removing ingrown toenails.
But on June 6, 2005, Mabasa was in surgical scrubs, leading Eileen Kelleher's lengthy operation. As she was recovering in the intensive care unit, nurses noticed her left leg had no pulse or color. Mabasa was called around 9 p.m., but did not return to the hospital until midnight, according to medical notes cited in a lawsuit Kelleher filed. Mabasa examined Kelleher's leg and, without tests, concluded that she was merely having an arterial spasm. He ordered more intravenous fluids and went home.
It wasn't until 8:30 the next morning — nearly 12 hours after nurses first recognized a problem with Kelleher's leg — that Mabasa and Brown ordered a CT scan, which showed the iliac artery had been cut and blood was filling Kelleher's stomach cavity.
With no vascular surgeon on staff, hospital personnel summoned Life Star to airlift Kelleher to Hartford Hospital for emergency surgery.
A still-groggy Kelleher wasn't quite sure what was happening.
"I remember being in the helicopter because I asked them for a Coca-Cola," Kelleher said. "I couldn't imagine why I was in a helicopter. But I was so thirsty."
When Dominick arrived at Hartford Hospital, doctors explained that Eileen was in a medically induced coma and that she might lose her left leg. When he asked to see his wife, the doctor told him he was standing right next to her bed.
"She's on this bed and she looked like the Goodyear blimp," he said, explaining why he did not recognize his wife. "She had no expressions on her face whatsoever. All she had was two dots for her nose and two dots for her eyes. No lips or nothing. Just blown up like a balloon."
Kelleher was in a coma for seven days. When she awoke, she looked down at her lifeless, colorless leg and knew something was horribly wrong.
"I said, ooh boy. This doesn't look good. Couldn't move it. No feeling. Nothing," she said.
Dominick knew the prognosis first, but could not bear to tell his wife. Instead, Eileen remembers a doctor coming to her bedside to break the difficult news.
"She said, 'Eileen, I'm going to have to remove your leg. I've scheduled surgery for tomorrow.' I said, 'No. No. I've got to think about this. I've got to talk it over with my family. But we are not doing surgery tomorrow,'" Kelleher said.
But Kelleher soon realized that there were no other options; it was either lose part of the leg or risk other complications that could kill her.
"I'm too young to die. I got a lot of things I want to do," Eileen Kelleher said she told her husband. "Now I got a bucket list. Did you see that movie? I got a bucket list now, I'll tell you. I got one."
Her bucket list includes buying a van with a wheelchair lift, taking a cruise to Jamaica and buying a house in Florida near her daughter.
Kelleher has a prosthetic leg, but for now is unable to wear it because her abdominal muscles are too weak. She still has a hole in her stomach covered with mesh that she has to keep from getting infected. She can no longer work as a nurse.
Even now, four years after losing her leg, there are times she forgets it's gone and tries to walk on it, only to fall. Recently, she got out of bed to use a commode, and simply forgot that she is an amputee.
"Well, I stood up and I didn't hang on to anything. And yeah, my one leg will support me, but then I went to turn because I'm thinking this leg here is going to help me. And down I went," she said. "I cry. I still cry, when I think of things I can't do that I used to do."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun