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Malpractice case against Duluth doctor: Ex-farmer testifies doctor left him disabled

A former Midway Township farmer suing a former St. Luke's neurosurgeon lost his composure on the witness stand Monday while looking at this 1997 newspaper photo of himself working on his farm. (1997 file / News Tribune)

STILLWATER, Minn. -- Doctor and patient both testified Monday in a malpractice suit pitting a St. Luke's neurosurgeon against a 79-year-old Proctor farmer.

Patient Alan Meinershagen testified that he was depressed enough that he wanted to kill himself after being operated on by Dr. Stefan Konasiewicz.

Konasiewicz later took the stand and explained his decision to perform a brain biopsy on Meinershagen in February 2006.

"I walked OK until your friend got me in the operating room," Meinershagen said while being questioned by Mark Solheim, one of Konasiewicz's defense attorneys.

Meinershagen sued Konasiewicz and St. Luke's for malpractice and negligence, claiming Konasiewicz's surgical procedure turned a minor infarct, or stroke, into a major hemorrhage. Meinershagen signed a consent form indicating he understood the risks, but he testified Monday that he didn't know that was what he was signing. He said he thought the document was related to Medicare.

Konasiewicz said his patient was clear in what he wanted done: "He wanted to make sure if something was brewing up there he wanted to go forward ... as soon as possible or conveniently as possible because he had other things to do."

Meinershagen wanted to return to his farm. He and jurors were looking at a 1997 Duluth News Tribune photograph of him carrying a newborn calf to his trailer home in order to keep the calf warm when he lost his composure and sobbed out loud on the witness stand.

"I enjoyed most of the work. I liked to go to auctions, buying machinery, I like to ride on a tractor," he testified and cried.

Duluth attorney Charles Bateman, who represents St. Luke's hospital, walked up and offered Meinershagen a box of tissues.

The lifelong bachelor raised Guernsey cattle and grew hay on a 300-acre dairy farm on Lindahl Road in Midway Township where he had lived since he was 19. His farmhouse was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 1989. He then lived in a trailer and finally in a room in his garage.

Meinershagen now lives in Bayshore Nursing Home. He testified from a wheelchair. He suffers from a lifelong stuttering problem and a multitude of health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure and vascular disease. His testimony was sometimes difficult to understand. However, except for a few apparent lapses of memory, he was sharp and feisty.

Under questioning by his attorney, Richard Bosse, Meinershagen testified that Konasiewicz didn't suggest any alternatives to the brain biopsy. He said the neurosurgeon should have done more testing "rather than drill a hole in my head."

"I couldn't talk, I couldn't walk. Dr. K. said, 'Oh, you'll be OK in a week.' The next time I saw him, he said 'maybe it will be a month.' ... It's been years."

Konasiewicz said he examined Meinershagen, reviewed his medical records, studied the patient's CT and MRI scans and discussed the case with radiologists.

While testifying, he used a red laser beam on an MRI to pinpoint a spot on Meinershagen's brain that he said "looked suspicious for a tumor." The image was "inconsistent with stroke, more in keeping with a tumor," the neurosurgeon testified. He said it was about the size of a kernel of long-grain rice.

Konasiewicz testified that he took Meinershagen's "presentation, the investigation and (Meinershagen's) wishes" into account before deciding what action to take.

"I told him specifically in his age group that it did not have the appearance of a benign lesion. It had the appearance of something more sinister," Konasiewicz testified.

He said he informed his patient of the inherent risks and potential complications of the surgery, including infection, bleeding, stroke, seizure and death. He said he told him that

3 percent to 4 percent of the procedures result in a bleed, and he offered him alternative treatment, including more testing.

"I believe I performed everything that a neurosurgeon would in that scenario," he testified.

Konasiewicz, 48, said he has performed 6,000 surgical procedures, including about 2,000 brain procedures. Meinershagen's suit claims Konasiewicz's diagnosis and treatment falls below the standard of care that similarly qualified practitioners would have provided under the same or similar circumstances.

The defense has repeatedly pointed out to jurors that Meinershagen is a proud man, who makes his own decisions. Solheim asked Meinershagen's sister, MaryAnn McKibbon of Mountain Iron, if her brother was a "fiercely independent, private man." She said he was.

McKibbon said she was shocked when she saw her brother after surgery.

"He looked like, I guess, he looked like a vegetable," she testified. "He said, 'He made a vegetable out of me,' and that's exactly the way he looked."

Sixth Judicial District Judge Heather Sweetland is presiding over the trial that was moved to Stillwater at the request of the defense, which said that Konasiewicz couldn't get a fair trial in Duluth because of prejudicial pretrial news coverage regarding their client.