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Multiple allegations against former Duluth, Minn., doctor

Neurosurgeon Stefan Konasiewicz practiced medicine in Duluth for most of the past decade. He became one of the highest-paid physicians at St. Luke's hospital, which praised him for his "outstanding care and skill."

He also racked up nine malpractice suits and a sanction from the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice for "unethical and unprofessional conduct."

When he moved from Duluth about three years ago, Konasiewicz left behind two dead patients, one woman paralyzed from the neck down and six others who say his treatment caused them serious physical harm.

His former employer, St. Luke's hospital, was aware of the harm Konasiewicz was alleged to have caused and yet continued to let him practice, according to records obtained and interviews conducted by the Duluth News Tribune.

In fact, St. Luke's continued to increase Konasiewicz's salary even as malpractice cases were filed against him. In 2005, Konasiewicz was the hospital's top-paid physician, earning $1.3 million. At the end of 2008, Konasiewicz was listed on the hospital's financial reports as its second highest-paid physician, earning $1.6 million a year.

Multiple sources also show that between 2005 and 2008, St. Luke's and Konasiewicz settled five malpractice suits for a total of at least $3.2 million. He still has three cases open. In total, the News Tribune found 11 cases alleging that Konasiewicz harmed patients.

Six doctors who have worked at St. Luke's told the News Tribune that they had been gravely concerned about Konasiewicz's ability and competence.

One of those doctors, St. Luke's neurosurgeon William Himango, now retired, said he had brought his concerns about Konasiewicz to hospital administration.

"The problems confronting this physician had -- not only by me, but by others -- been brought to the attention of the administration prior to some of these incidents," Himango told the News Tribune last fall shortly after the state Board of Medical Practice reprimanded Konasiewicz.

Dr. David McKee, a neurologist with Northland Neurology and Myology, said that he first brought his concerns about Konasiewicz's competence to the St. Luke's administration about a decade ago.

"The scope of the problem was evident from an early date," McKee said. "Information provided to the administration by physicians and nurses was not well-received."

When asked how Konasiewicz's situation differed from the normal medical complications that doctors deal with, McKee said: "I think what's different is just the rate of complications and complications in cases where one would expect a low probability of complications."

Konasiewicz and his attorney declined to comment for this article.

In a statement, St. Luke's said: "We reject the premise that Dr. Konasiewicz did not provide excellent neurosurgical care during his time at St. Luke's. To the contrary: Dr. Konasiewicz performed thousands of difficult and life-saving surgeries on thousands of patients throughout our region. Many people are alive and walking today because of the outstanding care and skill of Dr. Konasiewicz."

'St. Luke's believed in me'

Stefan Joseph Konasiewicz, now 48, graduated at the top of his class in chemical engineering at Montreal's McGill University, according to an article in the March 1999 Duluthian. He entered medical school at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, graduating in 1989 and going on to win numerous awards, including the 1994 General Motors Trauma Research Award from the American College of Surgeons.

He first visited Duluth -- with doubts about staying -- during a major snowstorm in the winter of 1997. But, he told the magazine, "St. Luke's believed in me. I liked where they seemed to be headed." And his practice, he said, was "to bring neurosurgery into the 21st Century in this community, to be able to treat people in the most contemporary and compassionate way."

The first allegation that he harmed a patient came a year later, when he operated on Leora Froelich at St. Luke's. Froelich claimed Konasiewicz ruptured her aorta during a spinal surgery and sued him in 2002.

A jury ruled in favor of Konasiewicz. Yet in that case, another St. Luke's neurosurgeon, Robert Donley, testified against Konasiewicz, according to records obtained by the News Tribune. It was the first time Donley had provided testimony against a fellow neurosurgeon, according to his deposition.

Donley, who was treating Froelich at the time that he testified, was critical of the time it took for Konasiewicz to recognize the damage caused to Froelich. He also criticized Konasiewicz for operating on another patient within minutes of putting Froelich in a post-anesthesia recovery room.

"I think that you would want to know what is going on with that patient before you move on to the next patient," Donley said in his deposition.

In 2001, Ellen Abare of Duluth said she was a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth when she went to Dr. Konasiewicz to relieve pain in her right forearm due to carpal tunnel syndrome. She alleged he took out a piece of a nerve in her right wrist, causing the loss of ability to use her arm for several years. She was forced to drop out of school.

Ten years later, she said her right hand is numb and unusable. She's been on disability since the surgery, and in recent years has to take narcotic medications for a severe pain that developed in her arm.

She sued Konasiewicz and the hospital and settled for about $85,000, records show.

After being told of his other malpractice cases, Abare said she didn't understand why Konasiewicz was still allowed to practice.

"I try not to think back. It's just horrific," she said. "It's taken away my life."

In the fall of 2003, David Tekautz of Duluth went to Konasiewicz with a history of chronic back problems and developing numbness in his right thigh. Konasiewicz recommended an epidural steroid injection, but he injected the wrong type of dye, causing muscle spasms that resulted in the fracture of Tekautz's second, third and fourth lumbar vertebrae.

Tekautz's case was one of four that the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice cited when it publicly reprimanded Konasiewicz in September 2010.

Tekautz sued Konasiewicz for malpractice and settled for about $300,000, records show.

"If he had said early on, 'I think you had a reaction to something we injected and we're going to make this right for you,' that would have been enough," Tekautz told the News Tribune. "But when I asked him about how this happened to me, his tone changed. He became defensive. He didn't answer my questions. He asked me if I was going to sue him. I was so broken in my body that I was just trying to learn what happened to me."

Tekautz said his life has never been the same.

"I used to walk one to three miles on the Lakewalk every day of the year. Now I'm driving if I have to go two blocks. My pace is much slower. My gait is different. My spine does not have the strength, flexibility or stamina that it had before. The pain always hinders my life activities."

Anger over death 'never' leaves

In March 2004, 56-year-old Dianne Baumgardner went to Konasiewicz for spinal surgery to alleviate pain from a herniated disc after being referred to him by another doctor. She and her husband of 37 years, Fred, had both retired and were looking forward to traveling, he said.

They had never met Konasiewicz.

"Dianne just took the doctor's word for it," Fred Baumgardner said. "We really trusted this doctor."

Three days after the surgery she was sent home, where her pain got progressively worse from an infection. Calls from the husband and wife to St. Luke's were returned with "That's normal" and "Be patient," Baumgardner said. A few days later when his wife was getting out of the shower, she bent over and liquid gushed from her back.

They went to the hospital the next day, where Baumgardner said Konasiewicz drained the fluid from his wife's back with a syringe.

"She was just screaming in pain," he said. "After, he cleaned her up, put a large bandage over it, prescribed her more pain meds, and released her."

They would be back the next morning with the same problem. This time Konasiewicz asked Fred Baumgardner to leave the room as he drained the fluid from his wife's back.

"I'm sitting in the waiting area," Baumgardner said, fighting back tears, "when I hear her screaming. I didn't go back. I couldn't. She was really screaming."

Both asked Konasiewicz why she wasn't admitted to the hospital, Baumgardner said.

"He said, 'no, I'm trying to prevent from having to admit her,' " he said.

They went home. That night Baumgardner said his wife was especially weak. She went to bed about 9 p.m., and died in her sleep. When Baumgardner said he found his wife on the bed, she was lying to the right, spittle coming out of her mouth.

The Baumgardners have two daughters and four grandchildren.

Baumgardner said he still struggles to cope with his wife's death.

"You are absolutely robbed," he said. "Absolutely. Where do you go? What do you? Since we were teenagers, we were basically together. We were so close where you could read each other's minds and thoughts."

"All we had was each other," he added. "We were soul mates."

An autopsy revealed that she died due to complications from an infection from the surgery, according to records from the St. Louis County Medical Examiners office. Baumgardner also had an underlying heart disease, Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini said.

"Having the infection put stress on her heart and played a role in her death," Uncini said.

Baumgardner said Konasiewicz called him after the autopsy.

"He said she would have died anyway," he said.

Baumgardner said he went to St. Luke's Quality Assurance department to see if something could be done to prevent a similar incident from happening in the future.

"But they backpedaled on every question we asked," he said. "I wanted them to accept responsibility for what happened. Just a little bit."

Baumgardner sued and won a 2006 settlement; St. Luke's and Konasiewicz paid out $355,000, according to multiple sources.

But he said the settlement was never about the money.

"I just wanted (Konasiewicz) stopped," he said. "There's nothing that would make me or my daughters happier than for him to never do any surgeries on another person."

'I wish I would have known'

Konasiewicz would continue practicing at St. Luke's, where patients would continue to allege that he harmed them.

In February 2005, he performed lumbar spinal surgery on 25-year-old Debbie Firn of Duluth, a married mother of two. Konasiewicz cut her aorta during the surgery, leaving about a quarter-inch-long hole through the artery, according to an autopsy conducted by the County Medical Examiner's office.

An injury like that would likely cause extensive bleeding and should be recognized, Uncini said. But the autopsy report noted that there was no evidence of an attempt to repair the hole. Twelve hours later she died of exsanguination -- bleeding to death.

"Either (Konasiewicz) didn't see it bleeding, or he didn't recognize what it was," Uncini said.

The autopsy report concluded that the death was accidental -- an unusual ruling, according to Uncini, because it means the surgeon was operating in a manner inappropriate for the type of surgery he was performing. Typically, deaths from surgeries would be listed as "natural causes," he said.

"The injury caused by surgery resulting in death is not an accepted complication of this type of surgery," Uncini said. "To my knowledge, we've never had a death from that ever, except in this case."

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, now-retired pathologist Donald Kundel, sent a letter to the state medical board reporting his findings. Three years later, Firn's family would settle a lawsuit with Konasiewicz and St. Luke's for $1.45 million, records show.

In 2005, a patient who had previously injured his leg and back went to Konasiewicz to treat the pain. According to records, Konasiewicz injected the patient with a medication designed to numb parts of his right leg. The medication allegedly destroyed the root of the nerve, causing him numbness in his groin and use of his leg, injuries that could be permanent.

The state medical board would later cite the case in its reprimand of him.

In 2006, Konasiewicz performed a brain biopsy on Alan Meinershagen, who owned and operated a dairy farm north of Duluth for about 60 years.

He went to St. Luke's in 2006 with weakness and numbness in his left arm and concerns that he had suffered a stroke. Dr. Konasiewicz performed a brain biopsy and, according to lawsuit records, caused a cerebral hemorrhage that led to seizures, severe cerebral dysfunction and brain injuries. Meinershagen, now 88, said he'll never walk again and that the surgery "ruined my life."

"He said it was supposed to be a very simple operation, no danger at all," Meinershagen said.

Meinershagen, whose case is scheduled to go to trial in August, has lived in a nursing home since the surgery, where he struggles with basic tasks like eating or turning on the television.

"I wish I would have known about him," he said.

In July 2007, while performing neck surgery on 39-year-old Lorena LeBeau, Konasiewicz ordered an anesthesiologist to apply manual traction and placed a template into the surgical site. That area during the surgery is supposed to remain still to prevent any damage to the nerves. But records noted a "sudden jerk" during the procedure and movement of the cervical vertebrae. The patient was later diagnosed with "persistent cervical quadriplegia" -- paralysis from the neck down.

Konasiewicz would later appear before the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice's complaint review committee and admit to movement of the patient's spinal column during the procedure.

The LeBeaus filed a lawsuit against Konasiewicz and St. Luke's in 2008, claiming the hospital "negligently and carelessly hired, retained and supervised Dr. Konasiewicz."

The case would be settled in 2008 for more than $1 million. The LeBeaus declined comment, citing a confidentiality clause they signed as part of the settlement.

In December 2005, St. Luke's, jointly with Konasiewicz, had taken out a special state malpractice insurance policy worth up to $3 million. That policy can only be granted to parties who are "unable to obtain insurance through ordinary methods," according to the group that granted the policy, the Minnesota Joint Underwriting Association.

"If the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice says a doctor can practice medicine but they can't get insurance, then we have to do something about the innocent victims harmed by malpractice," said Beth Devine Chopp, head of the state underwriting association.

The LeBeau payment came from the MJUA policy.

St. Luke's then sued the Underwriting Association, claiming the policy should have paid more.

Though a judge threw out the lawsuit, an exhibit in the case showed the hospital warned the Underwriting Association that three more claims could be coming against Konasiewicz for allegedly harming patents between 2006 and 2008.

In addition to Meinershagen, Konasiewicz still has two open lawsuits filed against him in St. Louis County.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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