Comedian Dana Carvey sues cardiac surgeon for $7.5 million; settles for undisclosed amount

Mark Fuerst

May 31, 2000

San Francisco, CA - Reliving a nightmarish version of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, comedian Dana Carvey talks about his 2-year ordeal after botched heart surgery in the cover story of the June 5, 2000 People magazine. As he tells it, cardiologist Dr Neal Eigler (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) was about to give him the results of a diagnostic angiogram 2 months after the funnyman had double-bypass surgery. "They bypassed the wrong artery," says Eigler.

WELL, ISN'T THAT SPECIAL . . .

"You're hilarious but let me be the comedian. Seriously, Doctor, what happened?" Carvey recalls.

"They bypassed the wrong artery," Eigler repeated.

 
It's that big of a mistake. I remember just lying in my bed just sobbing.
 

West Coast daily newspapers and "Entertainment Tonight" have covered a trial in which Carvey is seeking $7.5 million in damages from cardiac surgeon Dr Elias Hanna (Marin General Hospital, Greenbrae, CA), who performed the bypass. "According to testimony at the trial, which began May 15, Hanna attached a healthy segment of Carvey's artery not to the damaged arterial section nearby but instead to a healthy diagonal vessel," according to People. When he got out of the hospital, Carvey recalls looking in the mirror and saying, "I can't believe they bypassed the wrong artery." He likened it to removing the wrong kidney. "It's that big of a mistake," he says. "I remember just lying in my bed just sobbing," the Associated Press reports Carvey told the San Francisco Superior Court. The San Francisco Chronicle reports him saying "I was absolutely just terrified that I was going to have another open-heart surgery."

LAWYERS FOR HANNA CLAIM THERE WAS SOMETHING FUNNY ABOUT CARVEY'S ANATOMY

 
"Carvey had an unusual anatomy. He had an artery that was in the muscle of his heart, so it wasn't visible to surgeons."
 

Carvey first had what he testified as "burning" chest pains in 1997, and had three angioplasties in less than 1 year, reports People. A fourth emergency angioplasty was done immediately after the diagnostic angiogram showed that he still had blockages postbypass. In Hanna's defense, his attorney Dane Jones says the cardiac surgeon has performed 30000 bypass operations, and made "an honest mistake," reports People. "I can tell you what the evidence will prove: Carvey had an unusual anatomy. He had an artery that was in the muscle of his heart, so it wasn't visible to surgeons," says Jones. Dr Mamdouh Bakhos (Loyola University Medical Center) notes that 5-10% of patients have this abnormality but "if the surgeon takes his time, he should be able to identify the correct artery and do the bypass. I have seen cases where (a surgeon) bypassed the wrong location, but it should be very rare." Carvey recalls his "tortuous" 6-month-long wait to see whether the final angioplasty was successful.

CARVEY KEPT CRACKING PEOPLE UP, EVEN AS HE WAS ABOUT TO BE CRACKED OPEN - AGAIN

"I'd hike up a hill or walk up the stairs and feel the burning in my chest, meaning they might crack me open again like some kind of fabulous crab," he says. Carvey's physician, Dr PK Shah (Cedars-Sinai) now says his prognosis is "excellent."

 
"I'd hike up a hill or walk up the stairs and feel the burning in my chest, meaning they might crack me open again like some kind of fabulous crab."
 

After the three unsuccessful angioplasties, Carvey opted for the double bypass in March 1998. "Let's bite the bullet and do a horrific thing - this open-heart surgery, so I can get on with my life," he told the court. He chose to stay closer to his Mill Valley home and go to Hanna rather than travel to Los Angeles to see Shah. "I pleaded with Dana to take a private plane (to LA). But his local internist suggested that it might be unsafe to fly. I told him, 'Look, you have to do what you have to do,'" says Shah.

Carvey joked about the bypass on the way to the OR, doing a Woody Allen imitation on the gurney: "Maybe I could just, you know, take an aspirin. The last thing I said was, 'Make sure the knife is sharp,'" he recalls.

HEART TROUBLE COST CARVEY ALMOST $7 MILLION IN EARNINGS

The surgery seemed successful, but then 2 months afterward, Carvey called Shah and "said he was having the same symptoms again - chest pain. My first instinct was 'Oh, God, something got messed up in surgery,' " says Shah. Carvey testified that his Los Angeles doctors called it a "goof-up" and a case of "gross negligence," according to the Chronicle.

 
"This lawsuit, from the beginning, was about accountability and doing everything I could to make sure that it wouldn't happen to someone else."
 

"We all knew I was back to Square One again," he said quietly in court. Carvey has a family history of very high cholesterol, says his father, who believes that the stress of show business and grueling hours at SNL contributed to his son's condition. After his emergency angioplasty, doctors advised the Emmy-award winning Carvey to cut back on his work schedule. "For 6 months he was only able to perform a handful of stand-up dates and was forced to turn down a guest spot on "Hollywood Squares," as well as offers of commercials and a new network series," reports People.

His attorney estimates that heart problems cost the entertainer nearly $7 million. Carvey insists the motivation for the lawsuit is not financial. "I didn't want to go to court, and I don't seek this kind of publicity. But I felt this was a matter of right and wrong. There was no letter of apology or explanation, no phone call. I wanted to be satisfied that the surgeon would not be hurting someone else and would acknowledge his error," he says.

SNL alumni have encouraged Carvey during his 2 years of heart woes, including Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Adam Sandler, reports People. Sandler jokingly told him: "Carvey, if you need an artery maybe I got a couple to spare." Carvey has made a full recovery and testified that his health is "perfect," according to the Chronicle. "This past March he pinch-hit for David Letterman while the talk show host was recovering from his own quintuple bypass," People reports. He is back to jogging regularly through his hometown, and has lowered his total cholesterol from 400 to 150 through medication and a low-fat diet. Using the voice of one of his trademark characters, Hans the bodybuilder, Carvey says: "The cholesterol has gotten its proverbial ass kicked."

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