Fresno heart surgeon Pervaiz Chaudhry was negligent for leaving the operating room and letting his physician assistant close the chest of a 70-year-old patient, who ended up losing blood and going into a coma six years ago, a jury ruled Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court.
The jury deliberated about eight hours over two days before voting 11-1 in reaching that verdict, finding that Chaudhry's negligence was a substantial factor that led to Silvino Perez, now 76, falling into a coma. He remains in that state today.
Now the same jury will return Tuesday to hear testimony to determine whether Chaudhry had safety violations with past patients. If the jury finds his past conduct malicious or oppressive, it could lead to him paying punitive damages to Cristobal Arteaga, the stepson of Perez.
The surgery was performed on April 2, 2012, at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno. Arteaga also sued CRMC for negligence, but the hospital reached a confidential settlement before the trial began.
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During the trial, Arteaga's legal team of Jeffrey S. Mitchell of San Francisco, Steven A. Heimberg of Los Angeles and Ricardo Echeverria of Claremont accused the prominent surgeon of leaving the operating room for a noon business meeting at a northeast Fresno restaurant.
Chaudhry's lawyer, James M. Goodman, however, told the jury that Chaudhry was not negligent because Perez suffered "an extremely rare complication."
Chaudhry testified that he supervised the closing of Perez's chest by his physician assistant, Bella Albakova, and another surgeon, Dr. Kalwant Dhillon. Chaudhry testified that he left the operating room after Perez was in stable condition with no surgical bleeding.
Albakova, however, told the jury that Chaudhry exited before Perez's chest was closed. She testified that Dhillon helped her wire Perez's sternum back together and stitch up fat and muscle tissues, but she was left alone to stitch up the skin.
Albakova, who also told the jury that she had a three-year affair with Chaudhry, testified that he didn't cut corners during the surgery and left when everyone believed Perez was in stable condition.
Supporters describe Chaudhry as a brilliant heart surgeon who preforms high-risk surgeries to save lives.
Perez , a retired field and packinghouse worker from Sanger, was the primary caretaker for his wife, who suffers from dementia symptoms. A CRMC document says Perez had no significant past medical history, but was admitted to the hospital with intense chest pains.
At the time of the surgery, there were other people in the operating room, including anesthesiologist Dr. Ashwin Bhatt and several nurses. They were there to assist Chaudhry in replacing Perez's aortic heart valve and repair an aortic aneurysm.
During the trial, Adams Yussif of the California Department of Public Health testified that he was assigned to investigate Perez's surgery. He testified that three nurses in the operating room told him that Chaudhry left, leaving Albakova in charge of closing Perez's chest.
But in the trial, the nurses gave a different account or couldn't recall whether Chaudhry left.
In addition, jurors learned that perfusionist Aaron Schreur, who operated the heart and lung machine during Perez's surgery, wrote in his notes that Albakova and Dhillon completed closing the patient's chest at 12:35 pm, nearly 20 minutes after Chaudhry said he left the operating room. He also noted that the patient was bleeding.
Chaudhry, however, testified that Schreur's notes were incorrect.
What was clear from the testimony is that minutes after Perez's chest was closed, he began to lose blood that starved his brain of oxygen. Chaudhry testified that he had just arrived at Campagnia Bistro near Woodward Park when he received a telephone call on his cell phone about Perez being in distress. After he told his associates he had to return to the hospital, he testified he rushed back to assist medical staff and Albakova in saving Perez's life.