Because of a mislabeled tissue sample that led to a misdiagnosis, Darrie Eason had both of her breasts removed to save her from a cancer that she never had.
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No amount of money will make Eason whole again, but the Long Island, N.Y., woman hopes that her experience and a lawsuit she is pressing may help other women.
“Maybe if people hear about my case, they’ll know. Maybe somebody will do something differently next time,” she told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during an interview Thursday. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Eason is a 35-year-old single mother who works in the accounts receivable department of a local community newspaper chain. She has a 15-year-old son.
In 2006, she was told she needed to undergo a radical double mastectomy because she had an invasive form of breast cancer.
“I just broke down and cried,” she recalled of the moment she got the diagnosis.
Eason went to another doctor for a second opinion, and was again told she had cancer. The doctor relied on the same mislabeled tissue sample.
“I was told I had lobular breast cancer, which everybody said would come back,” she told Vieira.
Armed with that information, she had both breasts removed and underwent the first phase of reconstructive surgery in May 2006.
While waiting to heal so she could begin chemotherapy, her surgeon, who had submitted removed tissue to a lab for routine testing, told her that something was wrong: She didn’t have cancer.
“You can’t even explain it,” Eason said of her emotions when she was told she had had both her breasts removed for no reason.
An investigation by the New York State Department of Health would reveal that the lab that handled her biopsy samples, CBLPath medical laboratory of Rye Brook, N.Y., had mixed up her sample with that of another woman.
The other woman, who actually did have breast cancer, was told she was cancer-free. Only when Eason’s error was discovered did the other woman, who has not been identified, learn that she had cancer.
“She has to live with the idea that she had breast cancer and hers was not diagnosed at the earliest possible time,” said Eason’s attorney, Steven Pegalis, of the other woman.
The state report said “the most likely source of the error” was the technician engaging in a practice called “batching,” which involves handling more than one specimen at a time.
Second opinion, second test
NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, said Eason’s case underlines the absolute necessity in a lab of handling samples one at a time and double-checking every piece of identifying information.
She said Eason’s experience also demonstrates that when patients get second opinions, they have to get a second lab report on the tissue samples as well. When Eason confirmed her diagnosis with another doctor, she gave him the original lab reports, which were mislabeled.
“When you get the second opinion, ask that the slides themselves be sent to a second lab,” Snyderman said. “Don’t just send the report — then you’re just passing around a bad report.”
The state health department determined that CBLPath’s error was isolated and found “no systemic problems and no deficiencies” at the lab. Eason’s attorney, Steven Pegalis, told Vieira he’s not so sure.
“It may be one person, but personally I doubt it. One of the things we may learn is ‘Was there a system failure, and if so, what can be done to improve the system?’ Personally, I doubt this is a one-time event by someone who was careless for one time in his or her life,” he said.
Pegalis said he waited a year to file Eason’s lawsuit because he wanted to make certain that she didn’t sue someone who did nothing wrong, including the surgeons who operated in good faith on information they had no way of knowing was flawed.
“We didn’t want to include a physician who had done right by Darrie,” he said. “We spent some time making sure no physicians were involved in the case.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints