Frank Tetto says he’s far from perfect, but he’s not a drunk.
But that’s not what you’d think if you read the discharge papers he received after a stay at Saint Clare’s Dover in December 2013.
Tetto, 67, said his wife suspected he was jaundiced, so the pair went to the emergency room at St. Clare’s Dover.
“Besides a few cursory questions about my general health, the treating doctor’s questions focused on drinking. How much I drank, how often I drank, what happened when I stopped drinking,” Tetto said.
He said he and his wife repeatedly told the doctor he didn’t have a drinking problem, he said. He did occasionally have a drink in social settings, and during the past three months, he drank one or two glasses of red wine daily as part of an overall strategy to improve his health, he said.
Once he was admitted, Tetto said, he gave no further thought to the questions in reference to alcohol.
During his hospital stay, doctors told Tetto that he probably had pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis was confirmed at another hospital a few weeks later.
Tetto said he had no beef with the diagnosis, but with his discharge papers from Saint Clare’s.
But that wasn’t right, Tetto said.
“The medical tests revealed my jaundice was caused not by alcohol abuse but by pancreatic cancer,” Tetto said.
The discharge papers went further, listing “alcohol abuse” as a discharge diagnosis. And in the doctor’s notes, it said Tetto “admits to drinking daily.”
While it’s true that he told doctors he had a glass or two of wine each day, Tetto took issue with the word “admits.” He said the doctor’s notes made it sound like he’s a drunk rather than someone who just answered the doctor’s questions.
“At the time I was a 280 pound man,” he said, noting he lost 90 pounds during his chemo treatments. “Drinking one to two glasses of red wine in four to six hours does not constitute alcohol abuse.”
Tetto has gotten through difficult times in his life without alcohol. He’s spent the last 17 years as the primary caregiver for his daughter, who sustained a serious brain injury when she was struck by a vehicle in 1998.
“When faced with adversity I did not turn to alcohol,” said the father of seven children. “I went to my daughter’s hospital, and worked diligently to reduce the many risks to her life and well being. I endeavor to be a good son, a good sibling, a good spouse, a good parent.”
The “alcohol abuse” label hit Tetto hard, so he contacted the hospital to ask for a correction.
Saint Clare’s sent him the paperwork, which Tetto promptly completed.
On Jan. 15, 2014, the hospital made a change.
“We received amended records stating ‘episodic drinking induced jaundice,'” he said. “Alcohol played no role in my jaundice, my pancreatic cancer or any other illness.”
The change to “episodic drinking” was even worse than the first diagnosis because the hospital decided to “double down on the alcohol abuse error by claiming I was a binge drinker,” Tetto said.
While the phrase “binge drinker” wasn’t in the report, definitions of “episodic drinker” overlap with “binge drinker.” It’s defined as five or more drinks at one sitting for a male, and four for a female, according to the National Institutes of Health.
And that wasn’t near the level of alcohol consumption Tetto reported to the hospital, he said.
“It was not accurate but also… it was disparaging of my character,” Tetto said. He also said he feared that if the wrong information was shared with other medical providers, it could negatively impact his future treatment.
He said he contacted the hospital several more times to ask for further corrections, but was told repeatedly that no further changes would be made.
So Tetto turned to an attorney.
The attorney, William Ware, wrote a letter to Saint Clare’s on Feb. 12, 2014, saying the change was not acceptable.
“His medical file must be excised regarding any reference to Mr. Tetto having issues with alcohol abuse,” Ware wrote. “Mr. Tetto, who is suffering from pancreatic cancer, never told any staff member that he abused alcohol.”
The hospital still refused to remove the alcohol references, Ware said.
Ware said he had a theory about why mentioned of alcohol were prevalent in the document.
“It is assumed for many people who are treated for pancreatic cancer, that it’s because the person was an alcoholic,” Ware said. “That’s not always the case. [The hospital] made that leap, but it was never provided for by the patient.”
The belief is not uncommon. A 2011 study by the American Cancer Society found those who reported drinking three or more liquor drinks a day saw their risk of dying of pancreatic cancer go up by about 36 percent compared to nondrinkers. The study found no risk increase for those who drank beer or wine.
Over the next several months, Ware said, the hospital wouldn’t budge.
It didn’t even help when in June 2014, three of Tetto’s treating physicians wrote notes stating they believed Tetto’s jaundice had nothing to do with alcohol, nor did his pancreatic cancer, and they said he never abused alcohol.
Around that same time, Ware recommended Tetto use another attorney with more expertise in the area.
Attorney Robert Correale picked up the fight, contacting the hospital several times in writing and on the telephone.
In the fall of 2014, there was a victory.
Saint Clare’s agreed to remove all references to alcohol in Tetto’s records, in essence “cleansing” his file.
Once he received files showing the changes, Tetto was ready for phase two: a request to
be reimbursed for his $7,000 in legal fees.
“I do not believe I should have incurred these costs to correct a medical error by representatives of the hospital and the failure of the hospital to correct the error via the process in place,” Tetto said
So attorney Correale made the request, but the hospital said no.
To Tetto, this wasn’t just about his reputation, but about right and wrong, so he asked the attorney to try again.
And again, the hospital said no.
That’s when Tetto reached out to Bamboozled
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Bamboozled reviewed Tetto’s hospital and doctor’s records, and letters and emails between the hospital and Tetto’s attorneys.
We then reached to Saint Clare’s, asking it to take another look at the case.
The hospital said it worked closely with Mr. Tetto and his designated representatives, saying medical care providers rely on information provided by both patients and family members to render accurate diagnosis and treatment.
“When Mr. Tetto communicated his concern to Saint Clare’s, we worked to meet his expectations and were previously advised that revisions to his record were acceptable,” a spokeswoman said. “We are saddened that Mr. Tetto felt he was unable to resolve his concerns without engaging legal counsel. As a result of his decision, Mr. Tetto incurred fees that could have been avoided if he had chosen to work directly with Saint Clare’s.”
But hang on. Tetto did, from the start, try to work directly with Saint Clare’s. He asked to have the records corrected through the hospital’s own procedures. It refused, at least until two attorneys took up the case.
We asked the hospital about that, but it didn’t really answer the question. It said it regrets that Tetto felt he couldn’t resolve the problem directly with the hospital, and said patients can contact Saint Clare’s directly at (973) 989-3189 to resolve any concern.
Tetto’s not done yet. Even as he’s fighting pancreatic cancer, he’s considering a fight against the hospital in court, and he’s looking for an attorney to represent him.
“I do not think any person would want an institution or individual to wrongly define who he or she is as a person,” Tetto said. “My efforts to change my medical records and hold Saint Clare’s accountable for its errors and hubris are not only about me but also about my efforts to reduce the risk of similar errors being made, impacting other patients.”
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.