Carey Cooper, a 50 year-old rocket scientist and father of four, survived sleep apnea and sinus surgery on August 15, 2007, but he didn’t survive the recovery. That’s because he died from fentanyl intoxication due to a fentanyl pain patch — or the fentanyl transdermal system — that should have never been prescribed by his doctor.
Cooper’s physician, Dr. Michael Paul Widick, of Atlantic Otolaryngology in Cocoa Beach, settled the wrongful death lawsuit in January with one of Cooper’s surviving sons, Aaron, a personal representative of his father’s estate.
The doctor should have never prescribed this drug to Carey Cooper. Prescribing this drug to someone who just had surgery and who didn’t have experience with prescribed strong narcotics was incredibly reckless behavior that took Carey’s life. It’s essentially taking a sledgehammer to fix a problem that could have been treated with tweezers. There were dozens of other less risky options available.
According to court testimony, after returning home, Cooper was nauseated from taking the prescribed liquid hydrocodone, so Dr. Widick called in a prescription for the fentanyl pain patch. The fentanyl pain patch releases a potent narcotic that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine through the skin for 72 hours. The patch was 32 times stronger than the liquid hydrocodone the doctor ordered for Cooper.
The FDA’s warning label states that fentanyl patches should only be used in narrow circumstances, such as treating chronic pain like cancer. Its chief risk: it can cause respiratory depression and the patient can stop breathing. According to the packaging, the patches should never be used for post-surgical pain, for acute pain, for intermittent pain or by someone who is not already taking opium-based drugs. Every one of those warnings should have been crimson flags that this was the wrong medication for Carey. He was prescribed the second highest dosage available – 75 micrograms, and it killed him.
Court testimony shows that Carey called Dr. Widick’s office the day he returned home from the hospital, complaining that he had been unable to keep down the liquid hydrocodone and that he was in pain from the surgery. A staffer asked the doctor to see Carey that day, but was told to wait until the next morning. When Carey didn’t come in the next day, the same staff member went to his house to check on him and called the police when there was no answer. Police found Carey dead, with the patch on, the morning of August 17, 2007.
“There are no words to adequately express how much we miss our dad. I would be more at peace if I knew he had died from a disease, but to know he died from a doctor’s careless mistakes makes it more painful,” Aaron Cooper said.
Dr. Widick’s settlement with the estate was for $375,000, which was $125,000 over his medical malpractice insurance policy limits of $250,000. The estate also reached confidential settlements with the manufacturer and with the pharmacy that filled the prescription for the patch. The judge permitted the estate to seek punitive damages against Dr. Widick, which is very usual in medical malpractice cases; however, the case settled before going to trial.