Tony’s Law; The Elaina Valdes Story by Al Robelot
Synopsis and sample chapter
Meet Elaina Valdes, whose tale of love, rage, and politics chronicles a public and personal journey in the context of a national dilemma.
On July 15, 1988 Elaina checked her four-month old son, Tony, into a Florida hospital for a hernia repair. It was to be a simple, forty-five minute surgery. The surgeon, as the result of gross medical incompetence, mistook Tony’s testicles for ovaries, sewed them up inside his abdomen, and informed Elaina that she didn’t have a son, she had a daughter.
At the end of four years of lies and cover-ups by the operating physician and other medical professionals, Elaina discovered the truth about what happened during that surgery and the permanent injuries done to her son.
When Elaina tried to file a malpractice claim, however, she was told she was too late. The statute of limitations for medical negligence had already expired. Tony never got his day in court. Her research into the matter told her that Tony’s case was not unique; Florida’s children were frequently harmed by the same unjust law.
Elaina responded to this set of circumstances in an unusual way: although it could never benefit her or Tony, she set about changing the unfair law on behalf of the children of the state. She took on the medical and insurance lobbies, the richest in the country (financing her battle with garage sales and a paper route), and along the way dealt firsthand with forces that continue to keep medical malpractice a hidden epidemic, including institutionalized government corruption, welfare for the wealthy, income inequality, cronyism, sexism, our culture of toxic competition, the conspiracy of silence practiced by the medical profession, and the compliance of the corporate owned media.
Prologue The Second Bad Choice in Men
Elaina Osmani listened to the steady, deliberate scratching sounds as her husband, Albert, tried to pry his way in through the front door of their tiny apartment. She’d changed the lock and the dead bolt and even added some serious hasps and padlocks. The door was impenetrable now, so much so that she didn’t even bother calling the cops. No way in hell he was getting in.
Albert’s quiet, methodical assault on the door was as frightening as his violent rages. It brought home to her how in control he really was, that his bellowing and cursing and hitting wasn’t the result of some mental imbalance, but a calculated decision. When it suited him, he was as cool and as smooth as when they’d first met.
“Let me in, Elaina,” he said through the door. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her four year-old daughter, Nickie, the offspring of her first bad choice in men, was asleep in her bedroom. Her son, Tony, just ten months old, was awake in his play pen there in the living room. He moved his gaze back and forth between his mother, as she paced around the living room, and the front door, where emanated the strange, persistent scratching sounds and, occasionally, his father’s muffled voice. No doubt the boy was wondering, “what now?”
It was coming to an end, that’s what. Elaina was resolute. No more of his violent bullshit. She picked Tony up and held him close while she traversed the fifteen or so feet of open space between the wall and front door. It was an old story, and though she learned quickly, Elaina was only twenty-four, twenty-two when she met him. He had been such a gentleman, he showered affection on her daughter, and his muscular physique, dark hair, dark eyes, and fair skin didn’t exactly send her running in the opposite direction. She fell for it, the charm and charisma she came to understand as the early mask of the manipulator- skillful, but in the end the same old song and dance of abusive men. Part of the problem was, Elaina was not exactly on her guard. Ever since she could remember, she wanted to grow up, get married, and have a family. She was, to put it simply, an easy mark for guys like Albert.
He’d wanted to get married three weeks after they met- the rush to matrimony being another common move of abusers. If she’d only had that tidbit of information a year ago, perhaps it would’ve inspired caution. He later claimed three weeks was the typical length of an engagement in his home country and his family’s religion, those being Albanian and Muslim, respectively. Funny, since he originally told her he was Italian, like she was, and a good Catholic to boot, like she was. She did manage to set a wedding date six months down the road, which still didn’t turn out to be long enough to get to know the real Albert. The man could turn lies into excuses and make them stick, at least for a while. She found herself writing off a lot of his mean, bizarre crap as culturally based, like the ultra-short courtship: “perhaps that’s how they act in Albania,” is what she told herself.
The honeymoon didn’t last long, and the usual litany followed: he controlled where she went, what she did, whom she saw. He insisted she call him when she left work, then again when she got home; he knew precisely how long the trip took. Elaina remembered once having to use Albert’s car when hers was in the shop. Driving along, she listened to the cassette tape that was playing. It wasn’t music, but the sounds of someone walking around in a room. A cabinet door opening and closing, water running in the sink, the phone ringing and her own voice answering hello. Albert had planted a sound activated recorder in their house. Elaina’s greatest hits.
Soon he stepped up the paranoia, the jealousy, the control and, toward the latter part of her pregnancy, the physical violence. This was another textbook behavior these guys exhibit, she later found out; they beat up the mothers of their children more, not less, when they learn the little one is on the way. That was confusing enough, but she could never make any sense out of Albert. He was always catching her off guard, going ballistic over nonsensical shit she never saw coming, then communicating his dissatisfaction by turning her into a punching bag. At this he was especially adept, since he’d competed as an amateur boxer. He always began the onslaught by wrapping his big hands around her neck and squeezing. This had become, for them, an all too typical conversation: spittle spraying from Albert’s mouth as he shrieked invective on the subject of her unacceptable behavior while cutting off her oxygen supply, and Elaina fighting for air, “Ack! Ack! Ack!”
One time Albert brought some friends of his into the Denny’s where Elaina worked. Elaina greeted them all and took their orders. But when Albert got home: “You speak only to me! You look only at me! You take their food orders through me!” “Ack! Ack! Ack!”
One time Elaina, a fantastic cook, set out a smorgasbord of her best dishes for Albert and the guests he’d invited over to watch a boxing match: “You do not set food out for us to serve ourselves, you serve us!” “Ack! Ack! Ack!” When, on New Year’s Eve, Elaina cooked up a bubbling, delicious Lasagna: “It is customary to eat chicken and cake on New Year’s! Chicken and Cake!” “Ack!” etc.
When Albert’s brother, Joni (pronounced “Johnny,” although his given name was “Flamari”) came to live with them, Elaina caught another disturbing glimpse into the origins of her husband’s violent misogyny, although whether the meanness was cultural or familial, she couldn’t say. Fresh from Albania and the oldest of Albert’s siblings, Joni expected to be treated like a deity. Albert obliged, groveling and fawning after his brother and insisting Elaina do the same. They gave him a home, all of his meals, bought his clothes, cigarettes, everything, completely free of charge for six months so that he could work in Albert’s pizza place while saving up to buy a half interest in it. On top of that, because Albert wasn’t one hundred per cent completely legal yet, it was Elaina who filled out, time and again, Joni’s endless paperwork at the immigration office.
Elaina was fine with all of that, she was glad to help, except that the deity, in return, treated her like a scullery maid. If one of Nickie’s toys was left on the floor, he cursed her in Albanian at the top of his lungs. She knew he was cursing because Albert was only too happy to translate, also at full volume. Albert would then add some profanity of his own for embarrassing him in front of his brother. Joni insisted on absolute cleanliness, a fine virtue, Elaina supposed, although it would carry more weight if Joni himself didn’t act like the apartment was his personal pig sty, leaving half eaten food and clothes strewn about, ash trays dumped over in the bathroom and on the living room carpet, and so on.
This double standard applied to all aspects of Joni’s household behavior. On the day Elaina came home from the hospital with Tony, there was no food in the house, since she was the only one who did the grocery shopping. She was nursing her newborn and was starving besides, so she asked Albert to bring her something from the restaurant. Albert did, but the moment she sat down to eat, her brother-in-law drove up in the driveway. “Shit,” said Albert, “I forgot to bring food for Joni.” He dragged Elaina back into their bedroom to “hide.” Joni tracked them down, demanding to know where his dinner was. Elaina offered to share her meal with him, while Albert bowed and scraped and explained that Elaina hadn’t eaten since the hospital, that she was nursing, etc. Joni screamed and cursed in Albanian that he didn’t care and that he was hungry. He snatched the food from Elaina and proceeded to eat every last bite of it. As soon as he was done, he headed back out the door. “That’ll teach you to forget my dinner,” he said in broken English.
Most of Joni’s and Albert’s antics fell under the heading of garden variety “king of the castle” brutishness, but occasionally Elaina saw something that made her wonder. Joni was always impeccably dressed, of course, and to that end, it was her job to keep his clothes washed and ironed. Even were he inclined to stoop to women’s work, he simply didn’t have time to iron his clothes, because he was too busy ironing his money. He would stand at the fold out board in his pleated pants and his dress shirts that Elaina had washed and pressed, with all of his ones and fives and tens and twenties in little piles. And he would starch them meticulously and iron them flat with loving care. To Elaina, it was comical (I’ve heard of laundering money but this is ridiculous) and pathetic, but it somehow figured. The Albanian brothers were going to fit in just fine here in America.
Albert’s physical abuse again escalated, if that were possible, after Tony’s surgery, performed when the boy was six months old. Albert, considering himself perfect in every way, could not have contributed to his son’s deformity, especially not this deformity. Obviously it was all Elaina’s fault, which justified more than ever her being on the receiving end of his right hook. And it justified, too, his seeking surcease in another’s arms, which Elaina might never have discovered had she not broken a life long rule of hers about honoring the privacy of others; when he wasn’t looking, she opened his wallet and found the woman’s love letters.
Hence the change of locks and added hardware, whatever it took to keep the sonofabitch at bay. She put Tony back into his playpen and walked over to the door. He hadn’t stopped working on it for an instant.
“Open the door, Elaina. I’m not angry. Nothing’s going to happen.”
She replied just as calmly. “I’m not letting you in. And you can’t get in, so you might as well leave. We’re done, Albert.”
The relentless scraping and scratching continued. She told herself not to worry. She’d bought really good hardware, and she had no doubt in the world that the stainless steel was good and strong, and that it would hold. And she was right, it did.
The wooden door frame did not, however. After an hour and a half, it gave way rather quickly. In seconds he ripped the door free with a startling crack, and there stood Elaina, eye to eye with one pissed off Albanian.
“Oh, shit,” she said as she turned and bolted for the phone in the kitchen. He was on her before she could dial even the nine, tearing the receiver out of her hands and throwing it through the window with a crash. Tony began to cry. As Elaina fled again, Albert grabbed her shirt with one hand, keeping her within reach, and from the junk drawer nearby pulled a screwdriver. He swung wildly, stabbing her in the back. She’d managed to increase the distance between them by precious inches, however, and instead of burying the metal shaft between her shoulders, he succeeded only in gouging out a chunk of flesh from her lower back.
Tony’s shrieks increased in volume and he was trying to climb out of the play pen, and now Nickie was in the hall doorway, also screaming. Albert had released Elaina momentarily and was in the living room, picking up furniture and heaving it through the front window. Nickie pointed in horror at the streaks of red liquid running down her mother’s legs. “Honey, I just spilt some nail polish,” Elaina told her, but before she could go about comforting her children, Albert had grown tired of rearranging the living room onto the front sidewalk and was coming at her…
Chapter 1 A Simple, Forty Five Minute Surgery
Tony’s surgery, the doctor had assured her, was not complicated. Forty-five minutes, tops. So after an hour had passed and still no word from the operating room, Elaina made a conscious decision not to worry. Her infant son was in good hands. After all, these were doctors, and they of all people know what they’re doing.
Born in West Palm Beach County’s Bethesda Hospital on January 21st, 1988, two weeks before his due date, Dritone Matthew Osmani had been a beautiful baby. Everybody says that about babies, but Tony really was beautiful. Stocky, robust, and handsome, with dark hair and eyes like his father, he was all boy, over twenty inches long and weighing in at nine pounds, ten ounces. Although they owned the Pizzeria where Albert put in eleven hour shifts, there was no one he trusted to run the business for any extended period, and he came and went during Elaina’s thirty-two hours of labor, which she elected to undergo without the benefit of anesthesia. Long labors were nothing new to her; Nickie resisted for thirty hours before consenting to be born. Elaina had anesthesia for that one, and when people would later ask her why she went without for Tony, she would reply, smiling, “I thought I was super woman.” Actually, as it neared the day-and-a-half mark and Tony was still in utero, she told the labor nurse she was ready to go home and watch Oprah, and by the way, could she have that epidural now? But it was too late, Tony had just entered the birth canal. Super woman it would have to be.
Not that the pain of labor was any kind of deterrent. Elaina had always, always loved babies. As a child, even before she wanted to grow up and get married, she wanted to have babies of her own. She remembered sitting in church one Sunday, she must have been around seven, and she kept turning around to look into the pew behind her. This was, of course, strictly forbidden, and she knew she would catch hell for it, but there was a baby back there and she just couldn’t resist. After services were over and there came the scolding and all the rest of it, such as being sent to her room to write a paper on “Why You Should Not Turn Around In Your Seat At Church,” Elaina had no misgivings. It had been worth it, on account it was such a cute baby.
After her son was born, Elaina was happy to see she wasn’t alone in her adoration. Albert was so proud of Tony! In his home country of Albania, boys were kings (which made girls, Elaina was already beginning to see at this point, not queens but subjects), and having a son to carry on the family name is, apparently for Albanians, if not the most important thing in life, high up on the list. But in this case there was even more cause for celebration: Tony would be the first-born son to any of the male children in Albert’s family. His son’s name, “Dritone,” which Albert had decided on long before, meant “shining star” in Albanian.
At Tony’s two week checkup in March, his pediatrician, Dr. Babcock, found that Tony was perfectly normal and was doing fine. He did notice one thing, though. Tony’s left testicle was partially undescended. He wasn’t concerned about it. A large percentage of boys are born with an undescended testicle, he said, and in most cases the wayward organ finds its way to its proper position shortly after birth. Tony was certainly a healthy little boy, said Dr. Babcock, and he told Elaina not to give it another thought.
Tony was about two months old when Elaina had to return to work at Denny’s. She would’ve preferred to spend some more time at home with her baby, but that was impossible. Not only were she and Albert able to afford Tony and his medical care because of the insurance from her job, but they depended heavily on both incomes, and the money they had in the bank was dwindling fast. Despite owning the Pizzeria, it wasn’t exactly a gold mine, so back to work she went. She enrolled Tony in a reputable day care, where he stayed for two months. After that, she found a girl who looked after children in her home. She did an excellent job, and Tony would remain with her until he started kindergarten.
The second checkup also went well. Tony had grown five inches and gained almost six pounds. The left testicle had yet to descend, but Dr. Babcock remained unconcerned. He’d keep an eye on it, he told Elaina. Worst case scenario, if it had still not descended when Tony was one year old, he’d descend it for him. But the doctor didn’t anticipate having to go that route.
In the coming weeks, Elaina went about getting settled back into her life. Not completely happy with Denny’s, she had a bit of luck and found a new job at a restaurant called “Really Rod’s,” a place that had roots all the way back to her childhood. Rod, the owner, had another restaurant by the same name back then, where her father would eat every morning before going to his job as a truck driver. On weekends he’d sometimes take the family there for breakfast. Now, Elaina had known she wanted to work in a restaurant almost as long as she’d known she wanted to grow up and have a family, and Rod’s seemed like just the place to do it. Rod and his wife were nice and the waitresses looked happy, like they were having fun at work. Her father told her they made really good tips, so Elaina figured she’d work where the bosses were nice, the job was fun, and you made great money, too. Rod ended up selling that place, but he recently opened this one, not far from where she and Albert lived. The only drawback was that Rod offered no health insurance. Still, the salary would more than make up for the difference, even taking into account having to pay privately for coverage.
The job turned out to be a good one, but much different from working at Denny’s- and a departure from her childhood impressions of the place as well. Rod was a nice guy; he also ran a strict, tightly regimented business. Waitresses weren’t simply hired, they had to try out. Rod employed a four-woman floor, the waitresses working as a team. At the end of the day they pooled their tips and divided the money evenly, so there was no room for slackers. The three other waitresses were old hands at this work, and Elaina found it difficult to keep up with them. She was nervous, self-conscious, and feeling like she was failing miserably. She went to work each day half expecting Rod to fire her. After about six months of this, one of the four, as they were closing up shop, asked Rod who his best waitress was. It was an offhand question, but Rod took it, as he did everything, seriously, and it was only after several moments of thoughtful consideration that he answered, “Elaina.” She would end up working there, off and on, for eleven years.
One morning while Elaina was changing Tony’s diaper, he began shrieking to high heaven. Of late he’d been very cranky, which was unusual for him. As Elaina watched, the right side of his scrotum swelled and hardened and turned dark purple. Frightened, she called and made an appointment with Dr. Babcock, but by the time she brought him in, he’d calmed down and the swelling and discoloration were almost completely gone. As she described what happened, Tony began howling again, with renewed vigor. Elaina quickly opened up his diaper and this time the doctor could see what was going on. The swelling was a buildup of fluid called a hydrocele, he explained, in the upper portion of the scrotal area.
Babcock referred Elaina to his colleague, Dr. Gardner. It took two weeks to get into see him, and a harrowing two weeks it was. Tony’s scrotum remained purple and swollen. It was clear he was in excruciating pain when he cried, but there was nothing Elaina could do but try to make him comfortable. Gardner, a middle aged fellow with a pot belly and one of those tiny pony tails on the back of his mostly bald head, confirmed that Tony had a hernia with an associated hydrocele. Tony’s hernia, he told Elaina, was, in “simplified terms,” a tear in the lining of the abdominal wall. Babies this age, he continued, don’t usually develop the condition. When they do, it’s usually because they’re born before that lining has a chance to completely close. The hernia caused the hydrocele, which is the buildup of fluid in the upper part of the scrotal sac. When Tony cries, he puts a strain on the sac, which makes it swell up and turn purple. The doctor went on to say the condition was not uncommon, and requires only a simple forty-five minute out patient procedure to repair. Tony would be home by early afternoon. He scheduled the surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital for July 15, Albert’s birthday.
On the evening of July 14, Albert was preoccupied and moody. He kept trying to pick fights, which he found difficult because Elaina kept blowing him off. He finally managed to work up a squabble about something or other of no consequence, after which he informed her that, because she was such a bitch, he would not be accompanying her and Tony to the hospital tomorrow. Elaina pointed out that her being a bitch had nothing to do with Tony’s surgery, that Tony was his son, and that he should be there for him. Albert still refused. Elaina knew better than to try and talk sense into him; if he was determined not to go, then so be it. Tomorrow was Albert’s birthday. Maybe he had a party to go to.
Alone in the waiting room, Elaina did what people do when they needed to keep their mind off the fact that the surgery was running overtime: she flipped through magazines or watched the overhead TV where the anchorman droned the morning’s news. She found that this helped a great deal, except the magazine pages were all blank and the anchorman was speaking in gibberish, so she went to the receptionist’s desk to ask if there was any word about her son. “Dr. Gardner said the surgery would be over in forty-five minutes,” she told the lady. “That was half an hour ago.” The receptionist said she hadn’t heard anything, but that she would let Elaina know as soon as she did.
Elaina went back to the waiting room. After another half an hour a woman came in, and Elaina felt quite relieved not to be by herself. They introduced themselves- the woman’s name was Dara Parham- and struck up a conversation, exchanging stories about why they were there. In the back of her mind, though, Elaina was trying to make sense of the delay. They got started a little late, she told herself, and they were cleaning up before they came out to talk to her. It was as simple as that. Elaina smiled in relief and sat back in her seat, convinced that she’d been over reacting and that everything was fine and dandy.
She then excused herself to Dara and hurried back to the receptionist’s desk with her stomach in knots. “Any word yet on my son?”
“Honey, I wish I had something to tell you, but I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“Could you find out what is going on for me? They should have finished way more than an hour ago.”
“Let me see what I can do for you, honey.”
The receptionist had been very calm and reassuring, Elaina reflected as she sat down again in the waiting room. Her voice had been quite comforting.
“Are you all right?” Dara asked her.
“Hell no,” Elaina said, perched on the edge of her chair and wringing her hands, her imagination running amok. Twenty minutes later, she found that she was no longer upset. She was pissed. When she got to the desk this time, the receptionist was hanging up the phone. She looked at Elaina in some alarm, somehow gleaning that this mom was more than a little bit furious. Before Elaina could utter a word, she said she’d just this moment talked to the doctor. “He’s finishing up in the operating room and will be out to speak with you shortly.”
“How is my son?”
“As far as I know he’s ok.”
Fifteen minutes later Dr. Gardner walked into the waiting room in his surgical greens.
“Ms. Osmani,” he said with a glance at Dara, “can I talk to you privately for a few minutes?”
“It’s okay, this is a friend of mine,” said Elaina. After all, there wasn’t going to be anything private to talk about, other than that the surgery took a little longer than usual but that everything was fine.
“Okay,” he shrugged. They sat down.
“How’s my son?”
Gardner’s face, Elaina noted, was oddly without expression. He looked at her for a long time. “Ms. Osmani, you don’t have a son.”
She heard the words but they were devoid of content. What could they possibly mean? Maybe it would help if she said them aloud herself. “I don’t have a son?”
It didn’t help at all.
“No,” said Gardner. “You have a daughter.”