Drawing from the Wrong Side of the Brain

On March 9, 1984, Michael LaVar Cooley woke up from brain surgery to what he thought was his doctor's crude attempt at a bedside joke.

Cooley's neurosurgeon, Dr. Fred Christensen, confessed he'd just mistakenly operated on the wrong side of Cooley's brain. It would be necessary to operate the next day to remove the large tumor still wedged in the left temporal lobe of Cooley's brain. Although the tumor was noncancerous, it was growing, and threatened Cooley's life.

Just moments before he dropped his bombshell, Christensen had informed Cooley's wife, Sandy, that her husband's surgery at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital had gone well, that things hadn't been as bad as he had expected.

Sandy had been relieved. Her husband, a construction foreman at Motorola, had known since 1978 that a large meningioma--a slow-growing tumor originating in the membrane lining his brain--would someday have to come out because it would squeeze his healthy brain and compromise its function. It might even kill him. But Mike Cooley feared hospitals and surgery, and had postponed the operation for six years.

Now, with the surgery over, Sandy figured she and her husband could start living a normal life, free from worries about the surgery and tumor.

Her hopes plummeted when she saw her husband after the surgery. She observed drainage, bandages and severe swelling on the right side of his head. She knew the tumor was on the left side.

She sought out Chistensen and told him, "I think you operated on the wrong side."

Of course he'd operated on the correct side, Christensen replied.

In his operative report, Christensen even noted that he removed "approximately 100 grams of tissue" (about three ounces) from the right temporal lobe of Cooley's brain.

Christensen did not write in his report that he had failed to check Cooley's brain scans prior to the surgery. Those scans had indicated a tumor on the left side.

But after Sandy questioned him, Christensen apparently checked Cooley's medical records.

Then he found Sandy and confessed he'd made a "terrible mistake."
Sandy had been too shocked to offer much in the way of a reply.
She says he'd asked her why she wasn't more upset.

The next day, after a night of excruciating headaches, Mike Cooley, still fuzzy from the first operation, scribbled his name on a hospital form consenting to a second surgery.

Sandy's brother, a paramedic, was alarmed. He didn't think Cooley was in the right condition for a second surgery. And he wondered if Christensen, distressed by his mistake, was in enough control of himself to operate.

But Sandy followed Christensen's advice and also signed the consent form.
In the operating room, a portion of Cooley's skull was once again removed. Christensen tried to excise the meningioma from the left temporal lobe.

"This 30-year-old man was inappropriately operated yesterday on the right side with negative exploration for brain tumor," Christensen wrote in his second operative report. "Confusion rose over the long standing time between diagnosis and surgery and confusion in the office notes. He was returned to surgery today for appropriate operation."

"All in all, the procedure went quite well," Christensen concluded, noting that he'd removed "the vast majority of the tumor."

In the waiting room, Christensen told Sandy the second operation was a success, that most of the tumor had been removed.

Cooley was sent home five days after his unnecessary surgery, his life changed dramatically for the worse.

In the 15 years that followed, Cooley would struggle to hide--from his family and colleagues--severe depression, problems in relating to others and difficulty coping with his botched brain surgery.

He would not know for years that these were symptoms of damage to the temporal lobes.

Through all of it, he would manage to keep his job at Motorola and learn to be a freelance television news photographer.

And he would wage a 15-year legal battle for justice, first against Christensen, then against Michael Valder, the attorney who represented him in the lawsuit against Christensen, alleging both had committed malpractice.

Despite staggering legal and personal struggles, healthy parts of Cooley's brain would begin to compensate for the damaged areas, and he would began to heal.

But Mike Cooley's biggest challenge still looms--he must undergo a third brain surgery to remove the remaining tumor that he thought had been taken out during the second surgery. He's been extraordinarily lucky so far--the tumor has not grown in 15 years.

Attorney Michael Valder, who recently settled a legal malpractice lawsuit filed by Cooley, declined to comment. Cooley's case against Valder has been sealed by a judge.

Dr. Fred Christensen did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story. In 1989, he publicly acknowledged his mistake to the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, which polices the state's doctors. The board did not discipline Christensen in the Cooley case. Instead, the board wrote Christensen a "Letter of Concern," which amounted to a slap on the wrist, for his "error in operating on the wrong side of this patient's brain." Apart from this letter, Christensen has a clean record with the medical board. Since 1986, the medical board has dismissed nine other complaints against Christensen.

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Terry Greene Sterling