Failure to Diagnose Meningitis
Few diagnoses strike more fear into the heart of a parent than that of meningitis. It can strike suddenly, progress rapidly, and do profound damage, including causing death. Before the advent of antibiotics, bacterial meningitis was nearly always fatal. Even with modern antibiotic treatment, a significant number of cases result in death.
The best chance of recovery for those who have contracted bacterial meningitis is prompt diagnosis followed by the proper treatment. Delayed or incorrect treatment may result in severe and permanent complications even if the patient survives. Let's take a look at the symptoms and causes of meningitis, and what loved ones of those whose disease was not timely diagnosed can do.
What is Meningitis?
The membranes that line the brain and spinal cord are called "meninges," and when those membranes become inflamed, the patient has meningitis. Meningitis may be caused by either a viral or a bacterial infection. About 70 percent of meningitis cases in the United States occur in children under age 5 and adults over age 60.
Viral meningitis is usually less severe, and most people recover without specific therapy. Bacterial meningitis, by contrast, can have devastating outcomes, even if treated. It can be caused by a variety of bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Haemophilus influenzae, Listeria monocytogenes, and Group B streptococcus. Many of the infections that cause meningitis can also lead to sepsis, another life-threatening condition. According to the CDC, about 500 people die from bacterial meningitis in the United States each year.
Meningitis spreads through close contact with infected individuals. It is also exposure to infected fluids, including tiny drops passing through the air when someone sneezes. This is why community living, such as in a college dormitory or nursing home, can be a risk factor for bacterial meningitis. Meningitis may also arise as a complication of a hospital-acquired infection.
Why is Prompt Diagnosis of Meningitis Important?
As noted above, untreated or mistreated meningitis can lead to death or permanent brain damage. Other complications can include vision or hearing loss or damage to the heart or kidneys. What many people don't realize is that bacterial meningitis can lead to death within hours. If you were concerned enough about your child to seek treatment, and the medical staff at the doctor's office or emergency room failed to properly diagnose the patient, they may have committed medical malpractice.
What should a doctor be looking for? With bacterial meningitis, onset of symptoms is fairly rapid, and the doctor should note this in a medical history. In infants, signs of bacterial meningitis include fever, irritability, difficulty or lack of interest in feeding, listlessness, unusual sleepiness or difficulty waking, and jaundice. Unless the baby is dehydrated, their fontanelle (soft spot in the skull) may be bulging.
For older children and adults, common symptoms may include fever, persistent severe headache, vomiting, confusion, and seizures. A classic symptom is a stiff, painful neck, particularly when the patient tries to touch their chin to their chest. Less common symptoms may include eye sensitivity or pain, dizziness, weakness or sluggishness, or a skin rash. A doctor should ask about these symptoms when attempting to diagnose the patient.
Beyond taking a medical history, a doctor should conduct a clinical examination for signs of potential infection, and order medical tests such as a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap to confirm a suspected diagnosis.
What to Do if Your Loved One's Meningitis was Misdiagnosed in Oregon
If you believe your loved one's doctor did not appropriately examine and test for meningitis, and your child suffered serious complications as a result, you should contact an experienced Portland medical malpractice attorney. Nothing can compensate for the loss of a child or for the loss of their health, but you may be entitled to a financial recovery if the doctor or hospital committed malpractice.
Medical malpractice is a unique subset of personal injury law; many personal injury attorneys may advertise that they accept medical malpractice cases, but for the best outcome possible, you should work with an attorney who practices primarily or exclusively in the area of medical malpractice.
If you suspect your family member was not properly diagnosed with bacterial meningitis due to the negligence of the doctor or facility, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser PC for a free, confidential initial consultation. We serve clients in the Portland, Oregon area and throughout the state, and we look forward to answering your questions.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.