TOPSHAM, Maine — It was every parent’s nightmare.
In February 2014, six-year-old Wynter Przybylski was very sick. Her parents took her to a walk-in clinic in Brewer and to see the girl’s pediatrician. Both diagnosed her with severe constipation, but the treatment only made her worse.
“Her stomach was all distended, and she looked pregnant,” Wynter’s mother, Lisa Cash, said last week. “Her fever was worse. Her eyes were glazed over. There was something seriously wrong with her. But, at that point, we had seen two different doctors that had diagnosed constipation, so that’s what we thought it was. We waited for this to pass because we were told it was going to pass, but it didn’t pass.”
Four days after being diagnosed by her doctor, Wynter was diagnosed with acute leukemia and was undergoing treatment at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
“From the second she got to Maine Med, it was a drastic change,” Cash said. “It was clear that they had found the answer and had the right treatment. And it was starting to work.”
But the delay in treatment caused “sticky” leukemia cells to block the flow of blood from the girl’s lower spine to her legs, rendering her paralyzed. Wynter, now 9, was cured of leukemia thanks to a bone marrow transplant, but she is expected to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life because her problem wasn’t caught in time.
Her parents say that they hope Wynter’s quality of life will be improved immensely by a $1.9 million settlement with the U.S. government over her misdiagnosis that was approved May 31 by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock. The government provides medical malpractice insurance for the Penobscot Community Health Clinic in Brewer, where Wynter first was misdiagnosed. The money will be placed into a trust fund under the terms of the settlement.
“This settlement means that she will finally get the financial support she needs to overcome a lifetime of challenges,” Wynter’s father, Dustin Przybylski (pronounced sha-bill-ski) of Alton, said Monday. “This is just the beginning of the road for her.”
In the short term, the settlement monies will allow the family to buy a van with a lift so that Wynter’s parents don’t have to physically move her from her wheelchair into a car. The settlement also will pay for a hoist to help get her in and out of bed and on and off the toilet. In the long run, it will pay for new wheelchairs as she grows and other adaptive equipment she may need as well as a college education.
While her parents, who are now divorced, sometimes struggle to talk unemotionally about their daughter’s misdiagnosis, treatment and recovery, Wynter apparently has made peace with losing the use of her legs.
“At first she would ask if she was ever going to walk again and if she could do gymnastics or cheerleading or anything like that. And that hurt,” an emotional Cash said. “Since then, she’s come to a place of accepting it. She’s accepted that this is where he life is now. She can still do everything. It’s just a little bit different.”
That “everything” includes being a Girl Scout. Her troop camped in her backyard rather than the woods so that she could participate, Cash said.
Wynter has a registered nurse, Stephanie Shapiro of Falmouth, with her 10 hours a day, four days a week. Shapiro’s duties including giving Wynter an infusion of nutrients at lunchtime.
“She has little appetite because the chemo zapped her tastebuds,” Cash said.
Shapiro said she really enjoys working with Wynter.
“My previous clients were mostly elderly,” said Shapiro, who has cared for the girl for two years. “I love being with her, and I love going to school with her. She’s a lot fun. And since I’ve been with her, she’s really come out of her shell. At first, she would just ‘Meow’ at me.”
Wynter interacted with Shapiro and her mother last week when the Bangor Daily News visited her but she declined to be interviewed.
The girl qualifies for another 10 hours per week of care, but Cash said she has been unable to find someone to provide it consistently.
“We moved from Brewer to Topsham because I could not find nursing care for her so I could return to work,” Cash, who is a social worker at a nursing home, work she did in Penobscot County before Wynter became ill.
Cash said the decision to move was difficult because of the support the family received from the community during Wynter’s illness and initial recovery.
“I was able to be with her and not work for a year because of the support we had there, but I could not return to work because I could not get nursing care for her,” she said.
Wynter’s one-on-one nursing care and medical needs are paid for by Maine Care because she is a disabled child, Cash said. Maine Care does not pay for a ramp so the girl can more easily get in and out of her house — something the settlement will pay for.
A lawsuit against her pediatrician is expected to be filed in Penobscot Superior Court once the medical malpractice screening panel completes its work, the girl’s attorneys, Terry Garmey and Christian Foster of Portland, said in a press release.
“No amount of money can adequately compensate a young girl who, because of a medical error, will not walk down the aisle on her wedding day,” Garmey said. “The trust we have established for Wynter with this settlement will give Wynter the best chance to overcome her disability with hard work and good medical care. But her trust will be inadequate unless another care provider contributes to Wynter’s future care. We intend to make this happen.”
Foster said Monday that the size of the settlement probably puts it in the top 5 percent in terms of Maine’s medical malpractice awards, many of which include confidentiality agreements.