by Jim Stancil
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Lisa Buestrin’s impressive resume stops in 1993 when her public life was replaced by a private hell.
After sprinting from president of her high school class to the White House, Buestrin spends her days at home now. Her brilliant career destroyed, her body ravaged and immobilized by an overdose of steroids prescribed – and then abruptly withdrawn – by a trusted family doctor.
Buestrin sued the doctor, Nicholas L. Owen. The lawsuit ended Friday when a settlement of $16 million was signed by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Frank T. Crivello. It’s the largest medical malpractice award ever in Wisconsin prior to trial.
Buestrin, 32, suffers a cruel combination of disabilities. She’s paralyzed from the neck down except for small movements of her right arm, yet she is in constant severe pain from nerve damage. Her sharp mind and ability to speak and the deep-down drive to make a mark in the world were left intact.
By settling the case, Buestrin is guaranteed enough money to provide lifelong care, and the defense avoids facing a jury and the potential for a much larger award to compensate such a tragic waste of talent and potential.
Born into a politically active family, Buestrin was 10 years old when she joined the Ozaukee County Young Republicans. She was campaigning to get Ronald Reagan elected president at 12. She was an honor student and president of her class at University School who went on to graduate from Northwestern University.
At age 24, with a decade of political organizing under her belt, she was hired to work in the Reagan White House, eventually becoming an assistant to Vice President Dan Quayle. She was the lead advance person in Iowa and New Hampshire for Jack Kemp’s presidential bid in 1988. The following year she entered the University of Wisconsin Law School and finished in just two years. Her last job was government affairs coordinator for the Kohler Co.
“I’ve lost so much,” Buestrin said during an interview as she sat in a wheelchair alongside her lawyer, William M. Cannon, at his office in Brookfield.
“I’m trying very hard not to let it continue to destroy my life. I’ve always worked very hard and had the mental strength to overcome difficulty. I know I’ll be able to contribute to our society. I won’t be able to practice law as I had planned, but eventually I could start doing volunteer work with children who are sick at Children’s Hospital.”
She understands the value of comfort and assistance from family and friends. Her parents, Thomas and Mary Buestrin, care for her at their Mequon home along with help from her many friends. Buestrin goes to rehabilitation therapy three mornings a week. Dressing, bathing, feeding and otherwise caring for Buestrin takes many hours every day.
She feeds her continuing interest in politics by watching CNN and C-SPAN. She reads books with help of a device that turns the pages, and she has learned to flip the pages of a newspaper with her right arm if someone else bends over the corners of the pages first.
Buestrin probably will never be employed again. Just pressing the buttons on a telephone is painful for her, she said. Her future lost earnings have been estimated at $7.3 million.
Buestrin went to Owen in early 1993 complaining of nausea and dizziness. He hospitalized her for dehydration and later diagnosed a viral ailment. She lost weight steadily and was hospitalized several times that year.
In August, Owen put her on ondansetron, normally used to fight nausea in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. To counter the headaches and other side effects that drug caused, he gave her dexamethasone, a powerful steroid, in doses that were 100 times the recommended amount, the lawsuit claimed. Together, the drugs were a dangerous cocktail – “experimental,” one expert said; a “research project” without the patient’s permission, said another.
Owen, Harvard educated and a physician since 1959, admitted in sworn deposition testimony that he “probably” was negligent in his treatment of Buestrin and had done little research into the drugs he prescribed. He also admitted that he “might very well have” told Buestrin he was tired and bored with practicing medicine.
When Buestrin told Owen she was experiencing falls and weakness, he ordered a sudden halt to the steroids on Sept. 2, 1993. Four days later, Buestrin crashed and wound up at Columbia Hospital, fighting for her life.
Because of the steroids Buestrin was given, her adrenal glands shut down and her blood pressure plummeted. An infection that had been masked by the steroids raced through her body after the drug was stopped. She went into septic shock and blood flow was cut off to her arms and legs, destroying nerves, skin and muscles and leading to extensive skin grafting that has yet to heal.
She slipped into a coma for three weeks and awoke to the realization that she was a quadriplegic. She underwent 22 operations and spent almost two years in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, running up medical bills of $1.3 million.
Letters and get-well cards, boxes of them, poured in, including heartfelt notes from Reagan and Quayle. Kemp sent a photo of Winston Churchill and Buestrin’s favorite quote that begins: “Never give in. Never, never, never, never!”
Asked how she feels about Owen today, she said he let her down. She tries not to dwell on it.
Owen, 62, of Brookfield, declined to comment for this story. He left his office on E. Newport Ave. in February, according to the person answering the phone there, and is confining his practice to nursing homes.
Owen had two previous malpractice cases against him; one he lost, the other was settled out of court, records show. As a result of one of those cases, in which a 38-year-old man died of an undiagnosed heart problem, 0wen was reprimanded by the state Medical Examining Board in 1993 and ordered to undergo an assessment of his record-keeping methods.
Owen’s insurance will pay the first $400,000 of the settlement. The remaining $15.6 million will be paid by the Wisconsin Patients Compensation Fund. Cannon’s fees are about $3.3 million.
A parade of medical experts from around the country were prepared to testify on Buestrin’s behalf. One expert offered an opinion in court records that because of her family history of longevity, Buestrin could expect to live in her current condition until her 80s or even 90s.
Kemp also was on the witness list to speak of her talents and ability. Buestrin met with Kemp at the airport during his recent campaign visit to Milwaukee.
“I saw the plane and the motorcade and all the people who were doing what I used to do. It’s been hard to think I wasn’t there helping,” she said, beginning to cry.
She’s been told by her doctors that her condition won’t improve much, but she keeps hoping for a miracle.
“It’s worth fighting to live,” Buestrin said. “People should never have any doubt about that. So many times I didn’t think I could keep going for another minute. Somehow God gave me the strength.”