One day in the early 1990s, Janet Mitchell's doctor took her aside and told her that the doctor who had operated on her leg 15 years earlier had botched the job, and that mistake was responsible for the years of suffering that followed. The doctor who spilled the beans knew what he was talking about; he had been assisting in the original surgery.
Janet, now 45, but 32 when he told her the truth, was dumbfounded. She was all the more shocked because the doctors, exploiting her deep religious faith, had cynically told her for years that her injury was congenital, that it was "an unexpected result of the way God made you," and that she had to accept it as God's will.
She thought of what she had gone through: the loss of her legs during her crucial senior year in high school; the wheelchairs; the crutches; the leg braces; the 10 other operations; the physical limitations and their attendant emotional limitations.
Her disbelief morphed into a sense of betrayal, then became a white-hot passion to prevent others from being hurt. Over time, she was able to channel her anger into constructive action, to "be pro-active and create change in the system," as she puts it.
Janet's problems began when the then-Orange County teenager was 16. She had an auto accident in Mexico and tore cartilage in her right knee. She had surgery. It was the first of many surgeries and struggles leading up to the day, 15 years later, when her doctor confessed to her.
In the meantime, her parents lost untold days of work and ran up monumental medical bills because of her leg. Janet tried to adapt. "I knew my life would be different. I tried to put it behind me," even though it was a constant presence. Janet got married and she and her husband had three children. They are now 20, 18, and 16.
The injury is with her still. She is walking, but "not too far." She will need a knee replacement.
Janet did not take the news of her doctor's betrayal lying down. She went through a cloak-and-dagger process of gathering information from various doctors who had seen her. X-Rays disappeared; pages went missing form her medical chart. Eventually, she retained a lawyer, and sued. She won her case, for concealment and fraud, in 2000.
"My case is a case of medical fraud," Janet says. "If they had said, 'this is what happened, this is what we need to do,'" it would have been different. Instead, "they allowed me to suffer because of their pocket book."
Janet, through her Assemblyman, was able to get the statute of limitations on investigating medical fraud lifted. AB 2571 became law in 2003.
Janet is not through. She wants major reform to California's medical malpractice laws. She wants medical boards to have more teeth.
"Medical fraud needs to be treated criminally," Janet says, "and settlements need to be reported to medical boards. It's ridiculous to pay for medical boards and then tie their hands. My doctors have been sued, for various reasons, over 50 times. Most of these medical malpractice suits were settled out of court, thus preventing the medical board from investigating."
That's why Janet lobbied the Legislature to pass AB320 in 2004. It would have banned gag orders in malpractice settlements, allowing the medical board to do its job and fully investigate patient complaints. The bill passed both Houses, yet Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to sign it.
Janet also opposes the move to take California's MICRA law, which limits malpractice damage awards, national. "That's the last thing we need to do," Janet says.
In general, Janet feels that bad doctors have too much protection, not too little, as they claim. "It is not easy to sue a doctor," she says. "Ninety percent of lawsuits are settled or dropped, and of the 10 percent that go to trial, 90 percent are decided in favor of the doctor. It is very hard to find a plaintiff who has won a case."
"We need to get the bad doctors out of there," Janet says. "There are doctors who have been sued over and over again. That needs to stop. These doctors hurt everyone: The patients, and the doctors who deserve our praise."