Asthma victim awarded $1 million in settlement


A 14-year-old Baltimore boy who suffered a brain-damaging seizure while taking asthma medication will receive $1 million under a legal settlement with one of the doctors who prescribed the drug.

Lawyers for Anthony G. August and his mother, Dorothy Dorsey, charged that overuse of the anti-asthma drug theophylline triggered a seizure in 1986 that left him profoundly brain damaged. Anthony can no longer feed or bathe himself, his mother has said, or ride a bicycle or play with toys as he once did. "The child walks aimlessly and, beyond that, does very little," said Howard Janet, one of Anthony's lawyers.

Yesterday's settlement with Dr. Walter J. Alt, a family physician, averted a trial before a panel of the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Office. Mr. Janet said a separate claim against Dr. Lalah C. Newbrough, who practiced with Dr. Alt, was resolved in a confidential agreement.

Theophylline helps control asthma by widening the airways to the lungs, making it easier for patients to breathe. Although the drug remains popular, concerns have arisen in recent years over the seizures that can result if patients receive too high a dose.

Earlier this year, a panel convened by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute noted that a fine line separates a therapeutic dose from a toxic dose, which can cause disturbed heart rhythm, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, nervousness and seizures. Blood levels should be closely monitored to assure the line has not been crossed, the panel said.

Mr. Janet said expert witnesses were prepared to testify that the boy was taking a toxic dose of theophylline and that he had already experienced vomiting, headaches and insomnia -- telltale signs Anthony was at risk for a seizure.

The lawyer said the drug posed a heightened danger because Anthony suffered from an underlying seizure disorder. The combination of his disorder and theophylline were cause for extra caution, Mr. Janet said.

Daniel Lanier, the lawyer for Dr. Alt, said expert witnesses were prepared to testify that theophylline had nothing to do with the boy's seizures. He said his client decided to settle rather than risk the possible consequences of a trial involving a severely impaired child.

"It's an unfortunate incident, an unfortunate case," Mr. Lanier said. "Nobody likes to see this happen."

Separate claims against Dr. Brian P. Ahlstrom, a neurologist who treated Anthony, and the University of Maryland Medical Center; where Dr. Ahlstrom worked, are still pending.

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