Kim Johnson sat at her dining room table, anxious, clutching an unopened letter from the radiology department at Fleming County Hospital in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, in January 2015.
Breast cancer had killed Johnson’s mother years earlier, a painfully slow death that took a toll on her entire family. Johnson had been thinking about the possibility of that happening to her after she found a tender lump in her right breast a few weeks ago, causing her doctor to send her for a mammogram.
Who would feed the horses and chickens on the 101-acre family farm she and her husband ran in northeastern Kentucky if she became ill? After raising five children of their own, who will look after the three young children they’d recently adopted?
Johnson, who was 53 at the time, claims she tore open the envelope, unfolded the note, and started reading. Her gaze was drawn to four words in the first sentence, she claims: “no signs of cancer.”
Johnson recalls thinking, “Oh my gosh.” “I escaped with my life.”
Delbert, her husband, was overcome with emotion when she told him the news. They packed the kids into the car and drove to Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill to celebrate that night.
Only, as medical professionals who later checked her records informed her, there had been a grave error.
A cancerous tumor was quietly developing within Johnson as she dined with her relatives. According to doctors who later checked the photographs, the warning signs were present in the initial X-rays of her breast — enough to justify further testing at the very least. Johnson’s attorneys claim that someone at the hospital sent the wrong letter, giving her the all-clear instead of directing her to return for a follow-up test.
Johnson’s new physicians thought it was too late to rescue her when she found the discrepancy 10 months later, due only to her own insistence on finding a second opinion when the pain in her breast intensified.
Johnson didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of a year-long fight against not just a deadly disease, but also a health system and medical personnel who, according to Johnson’s lawyers, went to great lengths to conceal their mistake.
Johnson, who identifies herself as a “non-sue individual,” eventually filed a lawsuit because she wanted to know why her cancer hadn’t been detected sooner. Johnson, her attorneys, and a digital forensics specialist who checked her electronic medical records took three years of litigation to put together what they think happened: Two hospital staff opened and edited Johnson’s electronic documents in the days and weeks after she filed a medical malpractice complaint in 2016, according to Johnson’s attorneys, deleting proof of the erroneous letter saying she was cancer-free.
According to Johnson’s legal filings, the hospital then developed fake letters and manufactured them as part of the court case purporting to have ordered Johnson to pursue additional testing. The doctor who had been monitoring Johnson’s medical care pointed to the newly produced letters as proof that Johnson was to blame for her own delay in treatment when questioned under oath, according to court documents.
Andrew Garrett, the forensics specialist who examined Johnson’s medical records on her behalf, has consulted on hundreds of malpractice lawsuits, finding evidence hidden deep in electronic records for both patients and hospitals. Cases like Johnson’s, he said, have a “smoking gun” concealed in the documents.
Johnson’s case is still pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court, according to a spokeswoman for LifePoint Health, the healthcare chain that acquired Fleming County Hospital seven months after Johnson’s mammogram in 2015.
Johnson’s claims have been rejected by hospital lawyers in legal documents and court proceedings as a “conspiracy theory” that cannot be substantiated since the hospital’s electronic record system for mammograms at the time is now obsolete and prone to bugs.
One inconsistency in Johnson’s medical history has been confirmed by the hospital, but it was due to a “clerical mistake” by an employee who mistook Johnson for another patient of the same last name.
According to court documents, the hospital retained a separate computer forensics specialist to review Johnson’s medical record, but the hospital did not file its findings in court.
Johnson’s attorneys have said that they do not support the hospital’s claims. Her family doesn’t know yet.
Delbert Johnson said, “I prefer to put my faith in doctors and experts, even the machine.” “However, they failed Kim and attempted to conceal it.”