The case of Dr. Konasiewicz: Ailing patients speak out about former Duluth doctorPatients of the former Duluth neurosurgeon come forward to discuss procedures they say have caused permanent damage.
Since reporting in May that former St. Luke’s neurosurgeon Stefan Konasiewicz settled five malpractice cases for $3.2 million — including two that accused him of contributing to his patients’ deaths — the News Tribune has been contacted by 13 more patients of Konasiewicz wanting to tell their stories.
The total number of patients or family members of deceased patients the News Tribune has interviewed has now reached 29. Those patients all were treated by Konasiewicz while he practiced at St. Luke’s between 1997 and 2008. Here, we profile four of those patients.
At age 37, Brad Cristilly said, his life was only getting better. He was climbing the ladder at Minnesota Power, rising to electrical operations coordinator and earning more than $60,000 a year. He and his wife were expecting their fifth child and had bought land in Poplar to build a new home.
Ten years later, he is unable to work, a victim of chronic pain in his back and hips that he said feels like someone has taken a searing-hot poker to his body.
Everything from walking to using the bathroom to being intimate with his wife, he said, “is extremely painful.”
He no longer has feeling in his left foot, has difficulty walking and often falls. He said he expects to be on narcotic painkillers the rest of his life just to tolerate the pain.
In April 2001, Cristilly said he was exercising at the gym when he ruptured a disc in his lower back that pressed on his back. He was referred to Dr. Stefan Konasiewicz.
After the surgery, Cristilly said, his pain increased and became unbearable. The pain and numbness in his back spread to his left side and down to his foot, causing atrophy.
He went to another neurosurgeon, Richard Freeman who, according to Cristilly’s medical records, said his back pain was from nerve root damage that occurred during surgery by Konasiewicz .
It was an injury, Freeman wrote, that has also caused Cristilly’s intense pain and weakness in his left side, and it “cannot be repaired.”
Two years ago Cristilly went to a specialist at the Mayo Clinic to see if anything could be done to repair the damage, but he said he was told by the doctor there that wasn’t an option.
“He said he didn’t want to do surgery because he would probably just make it worse,” he said. “I get so angry when I think about everything that’s happened to me.”
Cristilly is on disability, a loss of about 40 percent of his former income, and he and his wife are struggling to keep their home.
Gail Anthony’s pain started in her arm and spread. An accident from her high school days as a gymnast and a few minor car accidents had her going to various chiropractors and doctors to manage the pain. One chiropractor said the pain probably was the result of neck problems.
In 2003 a co-worker, citing a positive experience with Konasiewicz, recommended she see him.
Konasiewicz recommended a spinal fusion, and he did the surgery the week after the diagnosis.
“After the surgery, he said everything was fine,” said Anthony, of Grand Rapids. “Post-op, he told me it was fusing and everything looked good.”
But Anthony said her pain persisted. In 2004, she said, she went back to Konasiewicz, but was told there was nothing wrong and “everything looked good.”
“I told him, ‘Something’s just not right,’ ” she said.
He recommended an epidural, an injection of anesthesia into the spine, to relieve the pain. The pain was eased, but by 2006 it was so severe that she was having uncontrollable tremors. She went back to Konasiewicz, who sent her to get another epidural.
The doctor who gave her the injection, Hal Heyer, also performed an MRI and gave Anthony grim news: One of her discs was ruptured and her vertebrae had not fused.
Anthony went to a doctor at Abbott Northwestern of Minneapolis, where her problem was repaired. But she said she still experiences pain that she’s been told will never go away. She can also barely turn her head and has difficulty driving.
Wendy Massino of Grand Marais says she doesn’t know why her right leg started hurting about 2001. She can’t remember an injury that caused the pain, which became so severe that she couldn’t stand up without feeling it shoot down her leg. Then it reversed, and she couldn’t sit down without feeling the pain.
She was referred to Konasiewicz who, after reviewing an MRI, diagnosed Massino as having a herniated disc. He scheduled surgery the next day.
“His response was, ‘Don’t worry, I can fix this,’ ” said Massino, now 56.
But eight days after the surgery, the former nurse said, the pain in her leg had become worse, and now there was intense pain in her back.
Several weeks later, an MRI revealed that a bone used to repair her spine had dislodged and shifted, requiring another surgery, her records show.
A month after her first surgery, Massino again was in the operating room with Konasiewicz. When she woke up from the surgery, she said, she was in “agonizing” pain.
“It was unbearable,” she said. “They gave me something to calm me down but said I had to lay on my back for the next 24 hours.”
A post-operative MRI report said Massino’s spinal cord was nicked and was leaking fluid.
Massino said she called Konasiewicz’s office and said she wouldn’t be returning to him as a patient, and sent a letter to St. Luke’s administration explaining what had happened. She said she received no response from the hospital.
Narcotic painkillers allow Massino to work; she and her husband manage a motel. But she said she’s been told by her doctors that she’ll eventually be permanently disabled and probably will lose the use of her legs.
The pain, even with the medications, is still difficult to deal with, she said.
“I fight it every day,” she said. “I’ve lived through constant back pain. … I think the worst part of this is that I have to live with this back pain that I never had before surgery.”
In 1999, Carl Mack and his wife, Rhonda, 49, moved to Hibbing so Carl could pursue training to work in the mining industry. A year later, Mack, who had been athletic throughout his life, said he began to notice something was wrong as he played basketball. His arms weren’t strong enough to get the ball to the hoop.
He was referred to Konasiewicz, who told him he needed spinal surgery to repair a disc in his neck. Two days later, Mack underwent the surgery.
A month later, Mack said, he was recovering. He could walk and drive again. He was planning to finish his training for the mines. But at his next appointment, Konasiewicz delivered some bad news: After looking at X-rays, the doctor said the screws and plate used to fuse Mack’s neck vertebrae from the front were coming apart. They needed to be taken out and put in the back of his neck.
A few days later Mack was back in surgery to have the plate removed, and five days after that he had another plate put in.
After the third operation, Mack said he woke up in the Intensive Care Unit. Confused, he tried to get up and go to the bathroom, but his legs didn’t work and he fell on his face.
Mack was sent home from the ICU two days later. After two more days, he said, his blood pressure skyrocketed and he blacked out. He was rushed to the Hibbing hospital and transferred back to St. Luke’s.
“I was real bad,” Mack said. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything.”
Mack would later learn that he was paralyzed on the right side of his body and had trouble speaking and had severe pain requiring numerous medications. About three years after the surgeries, Mack said he and his wife went to the Mayo Clinic to determine what was wrong with him and learn whether anything could be done.
Doctors there diagnosed him with Brown-Sequard Syndrome, a paralysis of a side of the body due to a cutting of the spinal cord, according to his medical records. The pain could be managed with medications, but the condition was untreatable.
“When I see my wife out there shoveling snow and cutting grass, it hurts me so bad,” he said. “I have never been a person that’s been depressed. Things go through my mind that I’m just a burden on my family. I think sometimes they would be better off if I wasn’t around and I wouldn’t be a burden on them.
“I do know that my youngest son is embarrassed of me, because kids talk,” he said. “He can’t explain himself and say, ‘That’s my dad, and my dad’s hurt.’ ” … When there’s father-son functions, he’ll say, ‘Well, why can’t Mom do it? Why can’t Mom go with me?’ ”
“I know he’s embarrassed,” he said. “But I can’t blame him. He’s just a kid.”
Mack doesn’t know what his future holds. At Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center, he said, doctors have diagnosed him with a rare neuromuscular disorder that weakens the muscles of his body. He depends on his wife for even basic tasks like adjusting his pillow. He said he takes 42 pills a day to treat his ailments, and his memory is beginning to fade.