Jennifer Peltz, AP
A prominent organ-transplant hospital wasn’t to blame for the death of a man who became riddled with cancer after getting a kidney from a donor who unknowingly had uterine cancer, jurors have found. The Queens jury found for NYU Langone Medical Center in the medical malpractice case surrounding Vincent Liew’s 2002 death. Experts have said it may be the only case of uterine cancer being transmitted by transplant, though the hospital has suggested Liew died of another form of cancer derived from the transplant.
The hospital’s lawyer, Robert Elliott, had argued that after belatedly learning about the cancer, its doctors did their best to assess the unusual situation and give Liew good advice. “This was a tragic result for all parties, and we want to once again extend our deepest sympathies to the Liew family,” the hospital said in a statement. “Unfortunately, in this case, the outcome of the transplant could not have been predicted or even imagined by our transplant team.”
Liew’s widow, Kimberly, had sued for more than $3 million in damages. Despite the verdict, she felt the case served her larger goal of drawing attention to the unknown danger her husband had faced, said one of her lawyers, Daniel Buttafuoco. “She’s not bitter or angry about this. She’s a devout Christian, and she wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else,” he said.
Liew, a 37-year-old diabetic who had been on dialysis for four years, got a kidney transplant on February 25, 2002. The donor had died of a stroke, and her cancer wasn’t discovered until she was autopsied. The hospital that treated her, St. Luke’s Cornwall in Newburgh, NY has declined to comment on the case. Liew’s surgeon, Dr. Thomas Diflo, didn’t learn about her cancer until about six weeks after the transplant.
Liew decided to keep the kidney after Diflo concluded there was only a slim chance he’d be sickened by the feminine cancer. He ultimately had the kidney removed in August 2002 but died the next month of a cancer his autopsy said came from the donor. His widow said the hospital should have urged him to have the organ removed immediately.
The hospital said it advised Liew there was a risk, respected his choice and aggressively monitored the kidney for signs of cancer. Repeated tests found nothing, though his cancer became apparent after the organ was removed. NYU acknowledged the malignancy derived from the transplant and caused his death, but a cancer expert who reviewed Liew’s records on the hospital’s behalf said he believed Liew suffered from a type of immune-system cancer that sometimes afflicts transplant patients. Another cancer specialist, who reviewed the records for Liew’s widow, concluded Liew’s disease was indeed uterine cancer.
The donor’s boyfriend has said her family also donated her heart and other organs. It’s unclear who may have received the organs and how they have fared. The local organization that arranged Liew’s transplant has referred calls to a national group, the United Network for Organ Sharing, that declined to comment on the fate of the donor’s other organs.
NYU Langone is one of the country’s busiest transplant hospitals, having performed more than 1,300 liver and kidney transplants during the last 21 years. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one percent of U.S. organ transplants are suspected of transmitting illnesses.