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January 4, 2010 - Navy Settles Death Claim with Jacksonville Mom's Family

Twenty-year-old Stephanie Starcheski did what nurses told her to when she showed up at Jacksonville Naval Hospital's Mayport clinic in 2005 with cold symptoms and worsening headaches.

That cost Starcheski her life, her mother says, allowing an undiagnosed sinus infection to become fatal bacterial meningitis.

Monday the government finalized an $850,000 settlement with Starcheski's family. Most of it will go to her 4-year-old daughter, delivered seven weeks early by emergency Caesarean section as her mother lay dying in a civilian hospital.

"This award will offer her opportunities that she might not have had," including prepaid college, money for routine medical expenses and annuities for her future, said Colleen Farmer, Starcheski's mother. "She will never go without, and that's important."

The hospital's commanding officer issued a statement expressing condolences to the family and pledging a quick and thorough review to identify any procedures that need to be improved for patient safety.

"We strive to treat all of our patients and their families with care, respect and with dignity, limiting public discourse about their cases," said Capt. Bruce Gillingham. "Although this occurred in 2005, I know this has been very difficult for everyone involved. It is my hope that this mediated settlement will enable her family to recover as fully as possible."

The family's attorney said the Starcheski case is the third he's settled with the Navy hospital involving failure to diagnose, all in the $800,000 to $900,000 range. He called Starcheski's death a "complete, absolute tragedy."

"If she had been treated with antibiotics, she would be alive. This was blatant malpractice," he said. "People just shouldn't be dying from bacterial infections that can be so easily treated with antibiotics."

Under federal procedures, the attorney's fee is 25 percent of the settlement.

Starcheski, an otherwise healthy woman, showed up at the Mayport clinic in early 2005 with an upper respiratory infection and a two- to three-day history of headaches. She was told to continue taking over-the-counter cold medication and return if her symptoms got worse, the family's attorney said.

A few days later she returned with worse symptoms, her mother said. She saw a certified nurse midwife, who told her she wasn't infectious and to keep taking the same medications, Farmer said. Starcheski didn't even have her temperature taken.

But Farmer said her daughter had a sinus infection, and she told her to return to the clinic. She also said she called the clinic herself to demand that her daughter receive an antibiotic prescription. Instead, a nurse prescribed a different over-the-counter medication, Farmer said.

Cronin said government experts conceded the clinic violated standards of medical care three ways: by not taking her temperature, diagnosing sinusitis or prescribing antibiotics.

That night, Farmer said her daughter's condition rapidly deteriorated into seizures and unconsciousness. The family called 911, and Starcheski was taken by ambulance to Memorial Hospital Jacksonville.

Doctors there diagnosed meningitis, but it was too late. Stephanie Starcheski was brain dead.

She died two days later and, because of her youth, her mother said her organs were used to save lives across the country: her heart in Wisconsin, lungs in Philadelphia, kidneys in Jacksonville and Gainesville, pancreas in a Miami research lab.

The donations uplift Farmer, but she still grieves for her daughter.

"She was my best friend," Farmer said. "Life will never be the same. Ever again."

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