DAVIE, Fla. – When the sharp pain shooting through Lisa Strong's back got worse, she thought it was another kidney stone and expected the discomfort to pass. This time was different.
Through a series of mistakes, miscommunications and misdiagnoses, she wound up having her arms and legs amputated. She sued the doctors, who essentially blamed one another for what everyone involved agrees were profound errors.
Everyone except the jury that ruled against Strong.
The verdict came in the face of such overwhelming evidence that in a rare move, the judge tossed out the jury's decision and ordered a new trial.
As she awaits her second chance in court, Strong vividly remembers the day she became ill.
On Sept. 20, 2003, she was at her job at a mall and could barely walk. She went home, and hours later, the pain grew more intense. Her fever spiked at 106 degrees. She decided to go the ER.
"I told the nurse I had a kidney stone. I had a history of kidney stones," said Lisa, now 45.
But the stone was never treated, setting off a downward spiral that triggered a life-threatening infection and septic shock that starved her limbs of blood. Her flesh turned black as a "line of death" crept up her arms and legs. It didn't stop for a month.
"I figured if I exercised, moved around, I could get the circulation back. But it's like frostbite," she said. "My fingers turned black. My toes and the bottoms of my feet turned black. My fingers started to curl. It looked like I had held them in a fire, like they were charred."
A month after she first went to the hospital, doctors amputated her legs below the knees. Three days later, her arms below the elbows.
Two years later, Strong sued the doctors for negligence. Lawyers involved think so many mistakes were made, the jury had a hard time fixing blame.
But Broward County Circuit Judge Charles M. Greene reversed the jury's verdict and concluded the it was "contrary to the law and the manifest weight of the evidence."
Such reversals are extraordinary. According to the National Center for State Courts, judges set aside jury verdicts in only 78 of 18,306 civil trials nationwide in 2005, the most recent year complete statistics are available. That's less than one-half of 1 percent.
The two physicians — emergency room Dr. Laurentina Kocik and attending physician Dr. Jason Strong, no relation to Lisa — have appealed the judge's ruling. Written arguments are due June 1, though another trial could be at least a year from now.
Kocik, a 30-year veteran of ER medicine, insists she told Dr. Strong over the phone that Lisa Strong likely had a kidney stone. Dr. Strong works for a firm contracted by Lisa Strong's insurance company to make medical decisions if her personal doctor isn't available or chooses not to make the call.
But Kocik didn't write "kidney stone" on her diagnosis report. Asked during the trial if she wished she had written it down, Kocik said: "You better believe I wish I did ... a million times."
Dr. Strong remembers talking with Kocik and there was no a mention of a kidney stone. He also was not told she was in septic shock, so he went with a diagnosis of acute cholecystitis, a gallbladder condition unrelated to the kidneys.
Dr. Strong handled everything by phone, which is common in such cases.
"I did not come in this particular case because, No. 1, I felt the patient was reasonably stable. I was not given a history that the patient was in septic shock or that she was crashing and dying," he said.
Kocik insists she stressed the dire condition. She said she expected Dr. Strong to give a few treatment orders and immediately come to the hospital. She also didn't turn the case over to her ER replacement during a shift change because Dr. Strong was calling the shots.
"I needed him to examine and make his own decision," Kocik said. "I wanted for him to come in. I expected him to come in."
But he never did. And Lisa Strong waited hours to undergo unnecessary surgery, which further weakened her. Finally, about 16 hours after she came to the ER, a test revealed the kidney stone that was causing her life-threatening infection. It was removed.
Four months later, Lisa Strong got out of the hospital, a quadruple amputee.
Dr. Anthony Smith, chief of urology at the University of New Mexico medical school, said it is critical people get prompt treatment for kidney stones.
"You can get a massive, overwhelming infection," Smith said. "When we have patients die, it's almost always because they delayed coming into the hospital."
But Lisa Strong didn't delay in getting to the hospital.
Life has been difficult since she was discharged. She struggles to prepare meals with her prosthetic limbs. Her 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, helps her put on makeup. She's in constant pain and owes some $850,000 in medical bills.
Her 10-year marriage fell apart and ended with the couple sharing custody of Chloe and another child, 9-year-old Jesse. She gets by on monthly $1,600 in disability payments.
Lately, she has had misgivings about the new trial.
"I had decided, this is over. I'm moving forward. Now, this whole thing is back on my lap and hanging over my head. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt," she said. "Everybody says you really can't win at these things."
On the Net:
Lisa Strong's site: http://www.lisastrong.org