Like any parent, a first-time mother had every reason to hope for a healthy baby as her pregnancy was not classified as high risk. However, the much anticipated moment for Marla Dixon on 2nd December 2013 became the most anguishing.

Within the 90 minutes of labour, the obstetrician had appeared distracted, leaving the room for long periods and taking an eight-minute call from a broker. His negligence had led to baby Earl Jr. losing his cognitive functions and a USD33.8 million malpractice judgment, according to a federal lawsuit.

“Not one time did he apologise,” Dixon said. “He didn't care. He kept going on with his lies. He blamed me.”

Patient was refused a C-section

The mother was in the last lap of labour at North Shore Medical Centre in Miami, Florida and the doctor in charge was Ata Atogho. He had ordered nurses to restart a drug to strengthen contractions and did not see the need to perform a Caesarean section.

According to the U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, the baby was blue in the face and his limbs limp by the time he was delivered. The infant’s father, Earl Reese-Thornton Sr., said despite the medical team’s attempts to revive the baby, Earl Jr. was pronounced brain dead.

Dixon claimed the doctor, who has been practising in Florida since 2009, blamed her for not pushing hard enough. Furthermore, the nurse in charge of delivery testified that the doctor had also falsified her medical record, which wrote that she had refused a C-section.

The nurse, who had not left the room during the entire delivery, said that Atogho never offered Dixon a C-section even though the patient told the doctor, “Cut me. I want to be cut. I can't do this anymore.”

Doctor ignored signs of the foetus in distress

According to court records, when Dr Atogho arrived at Dixon's bedside, her baby had a “category 3” foetal heart rate. Martin Gubernick, an obstetrician affiliated with New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical, explained that the baby's distress could have been caused by dehydration, the length of the labour or the doctor’s order to administer the drug for inducing contractions.

Atogho had also made three attempts to deliver the baby using a vacuum device called a “Kiwi”, which did not work. After 90 minutes of Dixon pushing, the baby was suffocating, according to court records.

“You can't beat the baby up for that long and not have a bad outcome,” said Gubernick. He believed that if Atogho had performed a C-section earlier, “within a reasonable degree of medical probability, the baby would not have suffered damage”.

Two months after the incident, Earl Jr. went home with a feeding tube attached to his stomach. Doctors have performed tracheotomy to help him breathe. He has been hospitalised about 30 times since his birth, Dixon’s attorney, Richard 'Bo' Sharp said.

Now, Earl Jr. has scoliosis and cerebral palsy, and cannot speak or sit up without falling over. He takes dozens of medications every day, said the distraught mother.

Doctor’s licence is “clear and active”

Previous lawsuits revealed that in early 2013, Atogho had delivered two babies who were permanently brain damaged, and a third who was disabled for life. The mothers had received care at Jessie Trice, which caters to Miami’s low-income and uninsured residents.

In one case, Atogho was alleged to have rushed the delivery using a vacuum device that disfigured the newborn, causing permanent damage to nerves in her shoulder and neck. The mother, then 17, had agreed to settle for USD92,200, according to court records.

Annie Neasman, president and CEO of Jessie Trice, said Atogho, who joined them in 2012, no longer works for the centres. She maintained that Jessie Trice checks the credentials of all doctors before hiring them.

“Over those years we've delivered tens of thousands of babies,” she said. “For the most part, there have not been issues with the delivery and the quality of our services.”

Despite the evidence of negligence, Dr Atogho’s licence is said to be “clear and active”, according to the Florida Department of Health. He is also not personally liable for the USD33.8 million judgment.

For Dixon, the court's judgment will help pay for a lifetime of round-the-clock care for her son, but the damage is irreversible, and it has cost not only her separation with the baby’s father but also a lifetime of pain. MIMS

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