After amputation, woman tells her story to change quality of care

S.H. Bagley

Somerville resident Ginny Harvey lost the bottom half of her left leg after four years of surgeries in a botched recovery effort .

A simple broken ankle turned into an amputated leg, over five years of surgeries.

In order to cure the bone infection, Harvey said, she endured 28 surgeries over five years. “I didn’t walk for five years,” she said. “I was either on wheelchairs or crutches.”

In Harvey’s case, the infection caused the formation of fist-sized bubbles of puss and flesh, she said.. She said it ate away at her tibia fibula, the “smaller bone,” she called it, in her leg, down by her ankle. Open sores almost as big as her foot are evident in the CHQC’s video.

By her account, doctors tried several different techniques to rebuild her infected ankle. “They took parts of me out from all parts of my body. They removed the tibia from my good leg, they took tendons from four sides of my hips.”

It amounted to no improvement. The infection would not leave her leg. “After all of the surgeries, they said they couldn’t do anything for me,” Harvey said.

She found new doctors at Beth Israel, who told her they could save her leg. They strengthened the infected leg with a part of her femur, she said.

After the surgery, “I noticed a soft spot above my shin,” Harvey said. The infection had returned. “After all the surgeries, I was 5’8” and down to 105 lbs,” she said. “I just said I couldn’t take it. They’re going to kill me.”

She decided to have her leg amputated in October 2000. It took two surgeries, because the first one did not take enough of her leg off, and the infection started to spread again.

And then the staph infection recurred, a year later. Harvey suffered a brain aneurism on her right optic nerve and lost sight in that eye.

Harvey, now on a prosthetic leg, has been walking again for seven years. She tries to keep a positive attitude, talking and laughing, even about her experience, in interviews. “My life wasn’t ruined by this,” she said, “but it was certainly changed.”

Consumer Health Quality Coordinator Wachenheim said problems such as Harvey’s are results of the medical system, in which doctors are not held accountable for their mistakes. The organization has been lobbying the state legislature to pass the Consumer Healthcare Quality Act, cosponsored by State Rep. Denise Provost.

Provost said given the cost of the state’s healthcare, patients should be better treated. “Massachusetts has the highest per capita cost of healthcare in the United States,” she said. “But, our outcomes are not as good as a lot of countries, even a lot of developing countries.”

The Staph infection Harvey said cost her leg is only one of the potential risks in hospitals. A pathogen called Methicillin Resistant Staph Aurient has gone wild in the country. “MRSA killed more people in 2005 than AIDS did,” Provost said. “I got those figures from the CDC.”

“We are never going to be able to control results or healthcare costs until we deal with quality,” Provost said.

“Now’s the time,” Provost said. Passage of the act would “create a culture of more accountable, user-friendly healthcare institutions, and start to turn things around.”

Brigham and Women's Hospital did not immediately answer a request for comment.