Pat Filaseta is no stranger to fighting adversity. When she was 13 she had polio and came out of the hospital with a leg brace and a limp. She felt lucky; she knew it could have been much worse. Within a year or two she was able to walk without any brace or orthopedic device, and did so all her adult life.
A decade later Pat was diagnosed with severe hyper-thyroidism and had her thyroid removed. With treatment and medication, she adapted, and led an active life, swimming, working and giving birth to two children. "I was always in excellent health," she says.
Now, however, Pat is struggling to overcome other tough foes: incompetent doctors; California's you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours medical establishment; and the state's unfeeling MICRA law, which has left her without legal recourse.
Pat's decline began in 1992, 24 years after her thyroid had been removed. Divorced and living in Los Angeles with her children, she owned her own business, and had never felt better. But doctors began suggesting that the dosage on her thyroid medication was too high.
Pat went to see a doctor at a major medical center in Santa Monica, just to be on the safe side. She felt fine when she went in for the visit, but that didn't last long. "The first words out of her mouth were, 'do you know your bones are dissolving?'" Pat says. "I was swimming a half-mile every day, raising two kids, strong as a horse, slim and fit. But she kept repeating, 'this is an emergency,' 'all the research has changed,' 'are you sure you don't have osteoporosis?'" The doctor scared her to death. Patricia had misgivings, but went along. "She's the doctor, right?"
Pat says the doctor misread a blood test and cut her thyroid medication dosage by two-thirds.
She developed flu symptoms and painful joints. "Within several weeks, I could hardly walk." The doctor would not back down, although she had made her diagnosis without conducting a bone density scan.
A 10-year odyssey through hell began. The first winter, the once-healthy Pat caught more colds and flu, had numerous bladder and yeast infections, and slowly put on weight. Problems with her immune system increased alarmingly over the next several years, as she approached a severe hypo-thyroid condition. Pat had been concerned from the start that the doctor had been wrong in rediagnosing her case. But half a dozen other doctors concurred with that diagnosis and told her that her dosage had to come down.
In October of 1996, "suddenly it went down fast." Pat had to use crutches to walk. In the winter and spring of 1996-97, Pat went into an alarming physical decline. At her lowest point, she could hardly digest her food, couldn't drive, and was too weak to take a shower. Her body had swollen to twice its size, with extremely weak and painful muscles.
She was always sick - flu, colds, muscle inflammations, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Overnight she took on the physical appearance of a person 20 years older. She was forced to live like an invalid. She couldn't work at all for four years, and suffered a terrible financial downturn through the loss of her business. Her daughter returned from northern California.
Pat began to educate herself. She discovered that the doctor had read the thyroid test incorrectly. She found a doctor who upped the dosage on her medication, by a small percentage. Pat broke the pills in half and took a larger dose. She began to feel better, although she is a long way from the old Patricia Filaseta.
Her ordeal was made tougher by the California medical establishment, which lacks an agency that would force doctors to remain responsible. At every turn she encountered the medical community's 'wall of silence' - doctors that did not want to take on another doctor's mistake, especially a doctor in the community from whom they took patient referrals.
Above all, none would speak a critical word against each other. "I started learning something about the doctors around here: They're not going to contradict another doctor."
Pat ran into an astonishing rebuff when she went to get her records from the doctor who had rediagnosed her and lowered her thyroid medication: She denied Pat had been her patient. A lawyer would have been able to disprove that, but no lawyer would take her case, because of California's cap on damages. The arbitrary statute of limitations under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act might have protected the doctor in any case.
Pat believes she has a 'crystal clear' case. "She (the doctor) took my medical situation and rediagnosed it for no reason whatsoever. I was in perfect health in 1992; I have a long way to go to regain my health."
While Pat builds her business, she has no legal help. "Doctors in California do not have to be responsible for their patients' health," she says, "and there is nowhere to go to force them into accountability. The public must learn about these realities and the state needs to track its doctors and make them accountable."