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Bravo TV Star Experiences Stevens-Johnson Syndrome Misdiagnosis

A Bravo reality television star’s experience with Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) is shining light on the rare condition, which can be fatal in severe cases. Kyle Viljoen, a former cast member on “Below Deck Mediterranean,” shared in October that he was diagnosed with SJS after first being incorrectly told he had hand-foot-mouth disease, a mild infection characterized by sores and rashes on the mouth, hands, and feet. Viljoen’s symptoms started with blisters all over his body. His condition worsened, and he soon had trouble swallowing, tongue swelling, worsening blisters, and vision changes. Viljoen visited an emergency room, where he was diagnosed with SJS after being examined by over 20 doctors.   

Viljoen is one of thousands of Americans who receive a Stevens-Johnson syndrome diagnosis every year. He developed the disorder after starting a new medication, which is the most common cause. Antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can all cause a reaction that leads to SJS. Viljoen recovered from the condition, but not everyone is so lucky. About 10% of SJS cases are fatal. In an Instagram post, he advised his followers to “advocate for your health and treat your body seriously” and seek treatment if something doesn’t feel right.

stethoscope on notepad at desk with blurred doctor in background

What Is SJS?

Stevens-Johnson syndrome is a rare condition that affects the skin and mucous membranes. It typically starts with flu-like symptoms like fever and fatigue before causing a blistering skin rash. While medication reactions are the most common cause, people with weakened immune systems, certain genetic factors, and a family history of SJS are more likely to develop the condition. When 30% of the skin’s surface is affected and mucous membranes are severely damaged, SJS develops into toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN). This life-threatening condition can take months to recover from. SJS is first treated by stopping the medications that may have caused the disorder, then by caring for wounds and removing dead skin. A doctor may also prescribe antibiotics, steroids, immune globulin, and pain medication to support recovery. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, the people at the highest risk for TEN complications are patients over 70 years old and those diagnosed with liver cirrhosis or metastatic cancer. It can quickly cause sepsis, a blood condition that can lead to organ failure or death. TEN can also lead to permanent scars, vision problems, respiratory failure, and psychological distress.

Because Stevens-Johnson syndrome is so uncommon — there are four to five cases for every one million adults each year — it is frequently misdiagnosed by health professionals unfamiliar with the symptoms. Viljoen was first sent home by a walk-in clinic after being incorrectly diagnosed with hand-foot-mouth disease, and his experience is unfortunately not rare. Treating SJS quickly before it worsens is crucial, and a misdiagnosis can waste valuable time. One of the most concerning outcomes of a doctor missing the correct diagnosis is that they won’t advise a patient to stop taking the medication that caused the reaction in the first place, which is one of the most effective ways to treat SJS. 

SJS Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Even if someone is lucky enough not to have long-lasting complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, the condition causes debilitating symptoms and often requires a long, painful recovery. After an SJS diagnosis, many patients choose to pursue Stevens-Johnson syndrome medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors who were supposed to provide a certain standard of care and failed to do so. The best way to determine whether you have a potential medical malpractice case is to consult with an attorney, but there are some possible factors to consider. Medical malpractice cases often result from doctors misprescribing medications that cause SJS or failing to warn patients about the potential side effects. Additionally, misdiagnosis is a common reason that plaintiffs file medical malpractice lawsuits after experiencing Stevens-Johnson syndrome. 

An SJS lawsuit can hold multiple parties liable for malpractice, including drug manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists, and hospitals. Doctors and pharmacists should inform patients about a medication’s potential side effects. When they don’t, they can be found negligent. Someone who experienced SJS may argue that they weren’t adequately warned about the possibility that they’d develop severe complications from the medication. If they suffered a misdiagnosis, they might state that a physician failed to meet the accepted standard of care and prolonged their suffering needlessly. In recent years, multiple million-dollar verdicts have been ruled in favor of SJS patients.

If you’ve been diagnosed with SJS or TEN, you should contact an attorney to discuss your legal options. Look for a lawyer with experience with SJS-related cases, and ask how many similar cases they’ve handled. You can also ask how they would prove that a medical provider’s negligence is responsible for your diagnosis. Lastly, you should ask how they handle fees. Most medical malpractice cases are handled on a contingency fee basis, meaning they only get paid if they win your case. If a lawyer is asking for money upfront, it could be a sign to look elsewhere.