How do you measure the life of a Pulitzer-winning composer?
New York State health officials have the answer: $16,000 -- the amount they fined two New York hospitals Dec. 12 for failing to diagnose and treat what turned out to be a 12-inch tear in the aorta of Jonathan Larson, composer/lyricist/librettist of Rent.
Larson went to the emergency room of Cabrini Medical Center Jan. 21, 1996 and St. Vincent's Medical Center Jan. 23 complaining of chest pains, dizziness and shortness of breath during final rehearsals for Rent Off-Broadway. Both hospitals diagnosed him as having a stomach ailment and discharged him.
Larson attended the final rehearsal of Rent the evening of Jan. 24 and was found dead on his kitchen floor at 3:30 AM Jan. 25 of what was later found in his autopsy to be a 12-inch aortic aneurysm -- a rupture in the wall of the main blood vessel carring blood from the heart.
Larson was 35. Rent went on to win the Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize and many other theatre awards. According to the New York Daily News, State Health Commissioner Dr. Barbara DeBuono said "Mr. Larson's condition was misdiagnosed at both hospitals." Cabrini was fined $10,000 and St. Vincent's $6,000.
The Health Department called upon both hospitals to provide an acceptable Plan Of Correction within 10 days.
Larson estate attorney David L. Taback called the Health Department's findings gratifying, telling Playbill On-Line, "For an independent investigative committee to come to these conclusions, and impose a fine on two hospitals, is almost never done, it's very comforting. They agreed that this was an act of flagrant neglect, and it was important to bring it to the fore."
Asked how the Larson family was taking the victory, Taback said, "Well, they're happy and they're sad. They're gratified that this confirms their expectations that Jonathan was misdiagnosed, but it also reminds them that their son, their brother, shouldn't have died. Maybe this will help elevate the quality of care for others."
Both hospitals issued statements denying negligence.
DeBuono acknowledged to the News that diagnosing Larson correctly "would pose a challenge to the best clinician" because of his comparative early age for such a heart condition and his lack of a previous record of heart trouble.
But a radiologist who looked at Larson's x-rays two days before Larson died found nothing, where an investigator examining the same x-rays after the fact saw plain evidence that Larson's heart and aorta were abnormally enlarged.
The Larson family has filed a $250,000 lawsuit against both hospitals. Taback said the lawsuit against St. Vincent's and Cabrini Is well underway, with depositions for the plaintiff already taken and depositions for the defendent to get underway in January. Such cases generally take a few months to reach a conclusion. Taback is confident the findings of the Health Department will be admissible as evidence in the trial.
-- By Robert Viagas