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As the threat of a life-changing diagnosis loomed, Morton-Maxson began calling his urologist daily for updates Image Credit: Pixabay

When doctors identified a tumor in Jeremy Morton-Maxson's bladder in August 2022, he feared the worst. His family had a history of bladder cancer, and he needed to know whether he was next in line.

He'd find out once the tumor was extracted and analyzed, he recalled his urologist assuring him. Morton-Maxson, 38, had the tumor surgically removed at the University of Washington Medical Center Northwest in Seattle on Aug. 17, two days after it was discovered. Then he went home to wait.

Two weeks passed without an answer, he said. As the threat of a life-changing diagnosis loomed, Morton-Maxson began calling his urologist daily for updates. Each time, he said he was told to continue waiting.

"It was overwhelming," Morton-Maxson told The Washington Post. "It caused a lot of anxiety."

'Bewildering news'

Then, in early September, Morton-Maxson received bewildering news: The hospital had lost the tumor sample before it could be analyzed. According to Morton-Maxson, his urologist said on the phone that she saw the extracted tumor get placed into a jar of formaldehyde, a preservative, after Morton-Maxson's operation.

"And that was the last time she had seen it," Morton-Maxson said.

The mistake left Morton-Maxson in the lurch as he waited for a critical diagnosis, he claimed in a June lawsuit against the University of Washington and the state of Washington, which oversees the university. The lawsuit, which was reported by the Seattle Times last week, accuses UW Medicine staff of negligence in losing his tumor and forcing him to pursue additional, cumbersome procedures to check for a cancer he's still unsure whether he has.

In an August court filing, attorneys representing the university and the state admitted that UW lost the tumor before conducting its analysis and said that it hasn't been able to locate it since. They denied that the mistake caused damages to Morton-Maxson.

Attorneys for UW and the state of Washington did not respond to requests for comment. UW spokesperson Susan Gregg declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Anxiety, anger

Morton-Maxson, a carpenter based in Seattle, had waited five months to see a specialist after noticing blood in his urine, according to a news release from his attorneys. A UW Medicine urology clinic offered the first available appointment.

Upon spotting the tumor in his bladder in August, doctors told Morton-Maxson it was "likely cancer," according to his lawsuit. (In its filing, UW denied the allegation.)

That suggestion filled Morton-Maxson with anxiety as he waited for confirmation after the operation, he said. The eventual news that he'd probably never know for sure was unbearable, he said.

"I was angry," Morton-Maxson added. "I remember [the call] happened while I was at work in the afternoon. I just felt like, I can't work anymore."

Morton-Maxson said his urologist told him that UW Medicine began an investigation into the loss of the tumor sample after it was misplaced. UW did not immediately respond Monday night to an inquiry about the status of the investigation.

Austin Neff, an attorney for Morton-Maxson, said in a news release that the loss of Morton-Maxson's tumor sample severely impacted his treatment.

"If the tumor was malignant, a pathology report would have told us how aggressive the cancer is and help his care team make critical decisions, including what targeted therapies would have served Jeremy best," Neff said. "Now, because of UW's actions, Jeremy is left with nothing but bad options."

Those options were either a punishing round of preventive chemotherapy to treat any cancer that could be present or an uncomfortable procedure he'd have to repeat every 60 days to re-examine his bladder, Morton-Maxson said.

Morton-Maxson opted for the latter, hoping to avoid chemotherapy in case it wasn't necessary. His symptoms have lessened since the operation, he said. But he's still frustrated to be forced into painful checkups that he said he may have to continue for the rest of his life.

"It may become something that I do every year, every six months," Morton-Maxson said. "But there's still uncertainty there."

Morton-Maxson said that his urologist was apologetic when she told him about the lost tumor. He added in a news release that he knew "how understaffed, overworked and underpaid hospital nurses and technicians are." But he criticized UW Medicine, saying hospital administrators never apologized to him for the mistake.

"There was no contact from administration," Morton-Maxson said. "That's sort of ultimately what made me take legal action. I feel that that's the only recourse I have."