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Lawsuit links psychiatric drugs to Tamarac child's death

A Tamarac mother sued Fort Lauderdale Hospital and a psychiatrist who worked there, saying they overmedicated her teenage son with a cocktail of mental health drugs -- some of which have not been approved for the treatment of children.

The boy, Emilio Villamar, died of a sudden heart attack. He was 16.

Emilio, a swimmer and water polo player, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by Dr. Sohail Punjwani in March 2002. Within the next year, the teen was given 16 different psychiatric drugs, six of which were still being administered when he died, said Michael S. Freedland, who is representing Emilio's mother, Norma L. Tringali.

Punjwani had also been treating 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, a foster child who had been prescribed several psychiatric drugs before he hanged himself in April. In the wake of Gabriel's death, the Department of Children & Families has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the agency's dispensing of mental health drugs.

Norma Tringali, 56, said she asked Punjwani and other medical professionals why her son was being given so many powerful drugs -- including six separate anti-psychotic drugs, typically used to treat schizophrenia, and one drug, called Cogentin, that is used primarily to curb the side effects of other drugs.

''[Punjwani] said he needed them,'' Tringali said.

''He was over-medicated,'' Tringali said of her son. ``He was like a zombie, walking with heavy paces, always tired.''

Attorneys for both Punjwani and Fort Lauderdale Hospital did not return messages Thursday afternoon seeking comment.


On Thursday, DCF administrators released new details on the investigation, saying 3,068 children in the agency's care were taking mind-altering drugs -- 118 of them infants, toddlers or youngsters under age 6. That comprises 13 percent of all the kids in DCF's care.

Teenagers, those aged 13-17, make up 31 percent of the dependent children prescribed mental health drugs. That amounts to 1,695 children taking at least one psychiatric drug, according to the numbers released Thursday.

Thursday's count includes almost 400 children who were not recorded when DCF released a census of children on medication a week ago. At the time, DCF Secretary George Sheldon acknowledged the census was a bit of a moving target, and agency leaders expected the numbers to rise.

''I have no confidence in the data that was released in 2007 and 2008,'' Sheldon told The Miami Herald Thursday, referring to reports DCF submitted those years to the state Senate in response to a 2005 law that required better oversight of dependent children being administered psychiatric drugs.


''This is a work in progress,'' Sheldon added. ``We've got to get it better.''

Among the new findings: Of the 50 children in state care younger than age 6 whose files were reviewed by DCF, in not one case had parents or a judge provided informed consent for the use of mind-altering drugs, Sheldon said. ``That's disturbing.''

The 2005 law required the consent of a parent or judge before foster kids can be administered mental health drugs.

''A parent of a child who has been removed will, for all practical purposes, sign anything,'' Sheldon said, noting that gaining meaningful permission from a parent overwhelmed by the removal of a child is next to impossible.

Tringali's lawsuit alleges that Punjwani provided healthcare to Emilio that ''deviated and departed from the prevailing professional standard of care exercised'' by most doctors by failing to monitor the effects of anti-psychotic drugs on Emilio's heart, failing to do regular cardiac testing, and failing to consult with a cardiologist or other doctor with more experience with the heart-related side effects of anti-psychotic drugs.

''These are incredibly powerful drugs, and they require a tremendous amount of monitoring,'' said Freedland.


Emilio was found slumped over in his room at Fort Lauderdale Hospital -- where he was being treated for his mental illness -- with blood dripping from his mouth or nose, Tringali said. He was taken by ambulance to Broward General Hospital, where he slipped into a coma.

The teen died March 29, 2003.

''Of course, I was in shock,'' Tringali said. ``Can you imagine: 16 years old? He was doing sports. He was a good swimmer. He played water polo. He was a very good student.

''It has been very bad for the family, very bad,'' she said. ``I don't live one day, not one day, without thinking about Emilio.''

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