So much of her lost

A mother of three battles medical providers that haven't settled in her lawsuit over a surgery and infection that almost killed her.

Published May 7, 2007


Sally Lucia's body hints at a story. You see the bone and flesh stumps at the end of her arms and the skin-toned prosthetic legs that begin at her knees and, naturally, you wonder.

Then her eyes draw you in.

They are bright and glossy, caught somewhere between the edge of laughter and a river of tears. Either emotion could take hold at any moment, and both have in the six years since her body changed forever.

"You have to laugh to keep from crying, " is how she put it on a recent afternoon.

Lucia, 47, typically fills her days home-schooling her three children, Sara, Hanna and Ross, in their cozy house off MacDill Avenue.

But for a week or more starting today, she will spend them in a cavernous Tampa courtroom, listening to lawyers debate whether medical mistakes or mysteries left her a quadruple amputee.

Her trial attorney, Steve Yerrid, will face off against the same insurance company and defense attorney with the same judge in the same courtroom where he won a record-breaking $217-million malpractice jury award last fall.

Attorneys have conducted nearly 60 depositions to prepare for this case. Seventeen experts are on standby to testify.

Ultimately, six jurors will decide whether the medical providers were at fault and whether they should pay potentially millions for the losses Lucia suffered.

* * *

Lucia has paid dearly since Super Bowl Sunday 2001.

As 72, 000 fans headed to Raymond James Stadium for the Jan. 28 football game, she went to Memorial Hospital in South Tampa with flu-like symptoms.

Twenty days earlier, she had undergone a tummy tuck to repair abdominal muscle damage she suffered after three caesarean sections. Now a collection of blood and fluid had developed in her wound, a common complication that usually proves easy to manage.

In the emergency room, Dr. George J. Haedicke drained her wound, gave her fluids and antibiotics and sought consultations from multiple specialists, according to his attorney, Brian Stokes.

The veteran surgeon had packed up his kids at the park and rushed to the hospital after another doctor called for help with Lucia.

She struggled to breathe, panting like a dog, she said. She noticed her coloring was off, too.

"My fingers and my feet were turning blue, " she said. "They were just very cold."

Her body was going into septic shock, a condition doctors say has a high mortality rate. Haedicke felt she was too unstable for surgery and wasn't sure she needed it.

A surgery performed by other doctors 30 hours after she arrived at Memorial removed a grapefruit-sized infection from her abdomen. But medications used to protect her major organs had drawn blood away from her extremities. Her fingers and feet darkened from blue to black. Doctors and nurses wouldn't let her look at them. When she was transferred to Tampa General Hospital for further treatment, "she was so ill that I thought she would likely die, " Dr. Michael Albrink, a general surgeon at Tampa General, said in a deposition last August.

Doctors at Tampa General performed 18 surgeries on Lucia from March to May of 2001. They amputated both legs at the calves and all of her fingers. They saved only a "pincher" between her left thumb and pointer finger, allowing her to hold a pen or a toothbrush.

* * *

In August 2003, Lucia sued five doctors and Memorial Hospital. She accused them of waiting too long to treat the septic shock that resulted in the death of tissue in her fingers and feet.

Everyone except Haedicke and the hospital settled for confidential amounts or were dropped from the suit.

Yerrid last week refused an offer from Haedicke's insurance company, ProNational Insurance, to settle for the $250, 000 policy limit.

"My guy was involved in her care for 41/2 hours, " Stokes said of Haedicke. "He did everything reasonably possible to save her life."

Lucia remembers rolling down the hallway toward the operating room for the first amputations.

She remembers going home after several months at the hospital and immediately wishing she could go back. She felt safe there.

She had to leave her part-time job as a customer service representative for Bank of America. She wondered whether life was worth living.

Her husband, a self-employed tree trimmer, her children and her Christian faith told her it was.

Civil case files are full of formal, passionless language. The Lucia file, all 20 volumes of it, has a stark breakdown of her more than $1-million in medical expenses, including the prosthetic legs that cost up to $25, 000 a pair.

It also contains lists of losses much harder to quantify.

From her husband, Jerry Lucia: "There is no longer any spontaneity in the things we do. Everything must be well planned in advance and even then requires almost Herculean effort on her part.

"She will never again hold my hand. I will never again feel her caress."

From her: "I can't tie my son's necktie for school. I can't scratch my husband's back. I can't thread a needle, sew or knit. I can't light a match. I can't paddle a boat or row a canoe. I can't pitch a tent or swing an ax. I cannot hold a deck of playing cards, a glass or a cup one-handed. I cannot wrap birthday or Christmas gifts. I can't pull tape off a roll. I can't cut my own food. I can't shave under my left armpit. I cannot change my shoes. I am unable to wear my wedding ring or any other rings. I cannot change my earrings or hook a necklace."

She cannot predict how jurors will decide her case.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.