COLUMBUS — Sarah Fudacz endured a surreal moment last year.
Her brother Paul Fudacz was unconscious in a hospital bed, his kidney had been removed, and there the organ lay before her — inside an incubatorlike box, contaminated with random biowaste after it was retrieved from the bowels of a hospital waste pipe.
“I saw the kidney and had a moment with it. ... I was thinking, ‘This should have been transplanted into me,’” the South Toledo woman, 25, said Friday while recounting her Aug. 10, 2012, highly publicized botched kidney transplant surgery at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio hospital.
The incident changed the siblings’ lives and deeply affected the rest of their family. The pair admit that a year later, it’s hard to relive the freak accident. Paul, 21, said he “built up a hate,” and feels “disrespected.” Their mother, Ellen Fudacz, fought tears while taking part in telling their story.
The Fudacz family broke their silence Friday to discuss Sarah Fudacz’s botched kidney transplant surgery and the aftermath. Ms. Fudacz, who was 24 at the time, eventually received a kidney transplant through a paired donor swap in November at a hospital in Colorado.
Talking to The Blade at their attorney’s Columbus office, the two siblings and their parents said they wanted to avoid a lawsuit with UTMC but it became unavoidable.
Now, the family and the university medical center are locked in a legal battle. Sarah, Paul, their parents, and their four siblings filed a lawsuit against UTMC in the Court of Claims in Columbus.
Jim Arnold of James E. Arnold & Associates, the Columbus-based law firm representing the Fudacz family, said UTMC was accommodating after the accident — helping to find Ms. Fudacz a new kidney and paying travel expenses to Colorado for that surgery. But the Ohio attorney general’s office, which represents UTMC, was unwilling to accept some of the family’s demands, he said.
Ms. Fudacz lived with failing kidney function through the end of her teenage years, and into her mid-20s endured the painful necessity of dialysis multiple times a week.
“I was 16 and I was at St. Ursula, and I felt really just sick and light-headed. I collapsed in the hallway, and my blood pressure was like 200 over 115,” she said. “I was rushed to the hospital and then we found out that I only had 50 percent [kidney] function.”
The following seven years were filled for Ms. Fudacz and her family with sporadic hospital stays until March, 2012, when she was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure.
Everyone stepped up. Every family member who was at least 18 got a blood test looking for the match Ms. Fudacz desperately needed. That included her mother, Ellen; father, Paul, Sr.; sister, Marie, and brothers Chris and Paul, Jr. Extended family members also were tested in an attempt to find a match.
When Ms. Fudacz’s younger brother, Paul, Jr., turned out to be a perfect donation match, the entire family breathed a collective sigh of relief, rejoiced, and prayed for an end to her suffering.
“When they said it was going to be me, man, I don’t know, I was excited and then just tried to hide my nervousness,” her brother said.
He was admittedly “freaked out” about giving up an organ, but thrilled to help his sister. With his sacrifice in vain, however, he now is filled with disappointment.
Like her brother, Sarah Fudacz also is filled with emotion.
“I woke up, I lifted up my gown, and I realized I didn’t have my incision, and I was like, ‘What happened?’” she said.
Meanwhile, her parents were left clueless in a hospital waiting area.
“They had a board that would tell you what the status was of the patient and you had a code for each patient,” the older Mr. Fudacz said. “We had a received a call that everything was great — Paul was doing great, and they had gotten the kidney out, and that was just what we wanted to hear. Things were going right.”
The family’s Catholic priest had just happened to be in the hospital doing rounds and he stopped by to stay with the Fudacz parents.
“He had blessed Sarah and given her the anointing of the sick [before the surgery],” Mr. Fudacz said. “He happened to be there and waiting with us. We were having coffee and everything was fine, and all of a sudden, the status changed.”
They were expecting to see their son Paul come out of surgery first, but it was Sarah’s status that changed. The parents thought it had to be a mistake.
“There was also a phone call to the receptionist that said Sarah has been moved to the recovery room,” Mr. Fudacz said. “We said, ‘That can’t be right.’ ”
Mrs. Fudacz added: “We waited for so long. ... So we are waiting for like 20 minutes not knowing what was going on. I thought Sarah was dead, just because no one was coming to us, time was going by, I was shaking like a leaf.”
Panic set in.
“I thought they found cancer or something inside Sarah because it didn’t make sense if Paul had gone through and the kidney had been removed, he should be out of the woods and everything should be OK,” Mr. Fudacz said. “My fear was they opened up Sarah and found something and they couldn’t do the surgery. If she couldn’t get a kidney, that’s like a death sentence for her because that would mean dialysis, and you can’t be on dialysis forever.”
Dr. Michael Rees, the surgeon who performed the surgery and continues to work at UTMC, came out to tell the parents what had happened.
“Finally, Dr. Rees comes out and he is in his scrubs, he grabs the both of us ... he says ‘Your kids are fine, but something bad has happened. Something bad has happened,’ ” Mr. Fudacz said. “He sits us down and he proceeds to tell us the story that he had opened up Paul, removed the kidney … and he said, ‘My nurse had discarded it.’ ”
The family’s lawsuit states that “at approximately 1 p.m., while Paul, Jr., was in the process of being ‘closed’ by Dr. Rees, Judith K. Moore, R.N., a nurse employed by the UTMC, returned to Paul, Jr.’s operating room after taking a lunch break. Nurse Moore removed the contents of the slush machine [which still included Paul, Jr.’s kidney], walked down the hall to a utility room, and flushed the contents [including Paul, Jr.’s kidney] down a disposal ‘hopper’ used for the disposal of medical waste.”
All manner of UTMC employees sprung into action looking for the discarded kidney, including maintenance workers who broke through a pipe to retrieve it, Mr. Fudacz said.
Feces and blood were among the contaminants that infected the organ, Ms. Fudacz said.
Part of the reason the family is suing is because the kidney Ms. Fudacz received on Nov. 13 is not a perfect match — meaning it will not last as long and after she will have a harder time finding another match. In the months between the botched transplant surgery and her successful transplant, she had additional dialysis, four surgeries related to dialysis, and had the uncertainty of whether she would ever find a suitable kidney.
“I am very grateful for the kidney I received,” she said. “It shouldn’t have had to happen.”
The new kidney came from a man in Boulder, Colo., whose wife needed a kidney. A Toledo-area man donated his kidney to that woman in Boulder completely altruistically so the husband would then in turn donate a kidney to Ms. Fudacz.
Ms. Fudacz’s mother wiped away another tear at that point in the long story.
“Dr. Rees found me that kidney,” Ms. Fudacz said. “It was a swap. It was unbelievable [that] someone I didn’t know was going to do this for me. It just goes to show that people are genuinely good and it was amazing that this woman’s husband gave his kidney to me. It shows how much they love each other.”
Getting to Colorado came after an earlier letdown in Alabama. Ms. Fudacz was set to get a kidney there as part of a 10-person kidney chain, but that fell apart.
In Colorado, on the day of the November surgery, everyone was keenly aware of what had happened in August.
“One of the doctors joked, right when I went under: ‘Don’t worry, we are not going to throw away your kidney,’ ” Ms. Fudacz said. “ ‘We are going to keep an eye on it. We are not going to throw this one away.’ ”
She then added: “Paul, Jr., says he donated his kidney to Oscar the Grouch.”
UTMC this week asked the state court to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Fudacz family and also wants to “recover its costs.”
Officials from UTMC were initially open about the botched surgery — revealing more details than they technically had to — but have recently declined to answer questions because of the legal battle.
Dr. Jeffrey Gold, UTMC chancellor and executive vice president for health affairs, released a statement Friday.
“The university continues to express the sorrow that we feel that this unfortunate incident occurred. We apologize sincerely. We have done our best to provide many remedies to help those affected move forward,” it said. “All of us at UTMC are sympathetic and sorry that this has happened. ... While the legal realities of this situation are complex and ongoing, we have worked hard to learn from this incident and have spread these lessons widely to try to make hospitals and transplant programs safer across the country.”
Ms. Fudacz is clearly angry with UTMC.
“Every doctor said that would never happen,” she said. “One surgeon takes the kidney and gives it to the other doctor. There is no period when the kidney is sitting by itself.”
The siblings have tried to move on — recently participating in a 32-mile hilly bike ride in Colorado along with their older brother Chris. Together they raised $3,000 for the Kidney Foundation.
The younger Mr. Fudacz, a graduate of St. Francis de Sales High School, is still matriculated at the University of Toledo. Ms. Fudacz went to DePaul University in Chicago and later transferred to Ohio State University — she’s now just one class shy of her undergraduate degree.
The botched surgery didn’t erase Ms. Fudacz’s desire to go into medicine, and it sparked an interest in medicine for her brother as well. He was studying business, but also considered a career in medicine after the surgery. Right now, he isn’t sure.
“After the surgery, Dr. Rees talked to me and I vented to him about maybe taking sciences classes ... and so that’s what I did after the surgery,” Mr. Fudacz said. “Dr. Rees told me he would take me in and I could watch a few surgeries. He seemed like he really wanted to make things right, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
When “everything got so ugly so quickly,” Mr. Fudacz said he lost touch with Dr. Rees. Recently, at his year check-up, the two spoke again.
Ms. Fudacz wants a career similar to some of the people who have helped her along the way.
“I am hoping to go to nursing school,” she said. “I am hoping to be a transplant coordinator or a dialysis nurse. I have had so many nurses who changed my life … and the transplant coordinators, everyone was just amazing.”