Court case continues for young girl with cancer

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Jocelyn Dickoff of Belgrade has fought cancer for nearly six years, and she has yet to celebrate her seventh birthday.

She is the daughter of Joe and Kayla Dickoff of Belgrade and a student at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa Elementary School.

Her battle with Stage IV alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) started when she was less than three weeks old, but her chance at fighting it with surgery in the early stages passed in spite of her mother’s concerns voiced to her physician about a small bump on her back side.

On June 29, 2006, Kayla, brought a concern about the bump to Dr. Rachel Tollefsrud during a regular check up.

Tollefsrud, a medical doctor at Family Practice Center in Willmar, told Kayla she would keep an eye on it and not to worry. At the time, the bump was approximately one centimeter in size.

According to Kayla, she continued voicing concerns about the bump through Jocelyn’s one-year check up. She repeatedly questioned Dr. Tollefsrud about the bump, which continued to grow slowly and change in texture.

Following the one-year check up, Dr. Tollefsrud referred Jocelyn to a pediatric oncologist at the University of Minnesota, who diagnosed her with RMS, a cancer of the connective tissues.

An MRI showed two masses, the largest measuring more than five centimeters and evidence of metastasis, which is the spread of cancer cells from the initial site of disease to another part of the body.

The best chance for successful treatment of RMS at the initial stages would be surgery that removed the tumor, but by the time the cancer was diagnosed, that was no longer an option.

Jocelyn has since undergone numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Jocelyn’s parents brought a case against her physicians at Family Practice Medical Center for failing to timely diagnose her cancer or refer her to another doctor for diagnosis and treatment. The trial court dismissed the case.

Last Friday the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on appeal that the case could proceed to trial on the claims that Dr. Tollefsrud and Family Practice Medical Center of Willmar, P.A., were negligent in failing to make a timely diagnosis when Jocelyn’s tumor was first brought to the doctor’s attention by Kayla.

The Court’s opinion included this statement: “It should be beyond dispute that a patient regards a chance to survive or achieve a more favorable medical outcome as something of value.”

Kay Nord Hunt, attorney with Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King and Stageberg, PA, explained that the ruling put Minnesota into a group of 22 jurisdictions that have adopted some form of loss of a chance. Out of the 22, nine have rejected it.

Further explanation of a “loss of a chance” by the Supreme Court said, “When a physician’s negligence diminishes or destroys a patient’s chance of survival, the patient has suffered real injury. The patient has lost something of great value; a chance to survive, to be cured or otherwise to achieve a more favorable medical outcome. Accordingly, we conclude that a physician harms a patient by negligently depriving her of a chance of recovery or survival and should be liable for the value of that lost chance.”

In terms of deciding what damages to award the Dickoff family, the Supreme Court noted, “The appropriate measure of damages is the value of the reduction of Jocelyn’s life expectancy from her pre-negligence life expectancy. In other words, assuming the fact-finder concludes the doctor’s negligence reduced Jocelyn’s life expectancy, the fact-finder must determine the amount of damages necessary to compensate Jocelyn for the reduction in that life expectancy. While we recognize that this task is not easy, it is the type of duty that the court routinely delegates to juries in personal injury cases.”

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