With 350 lawsuits filed, hospital now can’t ignore outcry over orthopedist

ascension-st-vincent-riverside-hospital-300x200The nurses complained, and so did a handful of doctors. The patients howled. Yet, for years, administrators at a Florida hospital ignored the repeated alarms, critics say.

Now, 350 lawsuits have been filed and 100 more are expected, all asserting that Dr. Richard David Heekin, a seasoned orthopedist, suffered from a progressively debilitating, rare, neurologic condition that significantly impaired his capacity to perform what should have been common, uncomplicated knee and hip replacements, putting patients in harm’s way, NBC News reported.

Instead, during his flawed procedures, bones fractured, tendons ruptured, and nerves were severed. Patients required costly, painful, and unnecessary revision surgeries.

Lucinda Bonk, 70, died in September 2018 after a hip replacement that lasted longer than expected because Heekin allegedly fractured her femur, or thigh bone, during the surgery, NBC reported.

Patients in their wave of lawsuits have blamed not only the surgeon but also Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside hospital, where Heekin practiced from 2016 until his voluntary retirement in 2020, as well as Heekin’s clinic, the Florida Times-Union reported.

The plaintiffs, in court documents, say they cannot fathom how medical facilities and those who ran them allowed Heekin to keep operating as his condition worsened and became glaring to see, as NBC reported:

“Between 2016 and 2020, patients noticed … Heekin slurring his words and having ‘difficulty with balance, inability to concentrate, angry outbursts, erratic behavior, gait disturbances and impaired judgment and mood,’ according to court documents.”

The suits, according to NBC News, describe the orthopedist’s steep health decline:

“According to the court documents, Heekin had progressive supranuclear palsy, which the Mayo Clinic describes as an uncommon brain disorder that causes serious problems with walking, balance, and eye movements, and later, with swallowing. It worsens over time … Several physicians and nurses voiced concern about Heekin’s ability to practice, the court documents say. They expressed their concerns to those in management positions at St. Vincent’s Riverside hospital, yet the hospital still ‘forced at least one nurse who asked not to be in the room with him to continue to perform surgery with Heekin when she knew it was a risk to patient safety,’ according to court records.”

The doctor eventually turned in his medical license and retired, though this was not a purely voluntary occurrence, the Times-Union reported:

“In 2021, Heekin gave up his license to end a Florida Department of Health Investigation into a complaint alleging injuries during a surgery, according to state documents. It’s not clear which lawsuit complaint led to the state investigation.”

Still, the newspaper reported that “patients who filed 10 complaints have already been awarded over $6 million total in the Florida Division of Administrative Courts.”

The hospital has declined to comment on the cases, several of which also resulted in harms when patients returned to the orthopedist for surgical revisions:

“Among the other alleged victims were patients whose surgery left them with a leg that was shorter than the other because Heekin had allegedly selected the wrong size femoral component needed for hip replacement. Other patients had such severe nerve damage that it resulted in permanent ‘drop foot,’ the documents say, referring to difficulty lifting the front part of the foot off the ground.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, effective, and excellent medical care. This has become an ordeal due to the soaring cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

Before they undergo progressively more costly, complex, and risky interventions for knee and joint issues, patients should discuss with their doctors the benefits they may experience from rest, exercise, physical therapy, and drugs.

All medical procedures carry risks, and this includes injections into the knee, hip, and shoulder, as well as replacement surgeries for those areas. In our rapidly aging nation, knee and hip replacements have become some of the most common surgical procedures, with hundreds of thousands of them performed  annually now. Doctors have made strides with the surgeries.

But even operations like knee, shoulder, and hip replacements that doctors and hospitals insist have become almost routine should never be undertaken without extensive discussion, preparation, investigation, and care. Too many patients have found that knee surgeries, for example, have their “risks and limitations,” and “doctors are increasingly concerned that the procedure is overused and that its benefits have been oversold,” the independent Kaiser Health News (KHN) service reported not that long ago.

When patients undergo costly, painful, and invasive procedures, it should go without saying that doctors and nurses should take care to listen to and heed their concerns before, during, and after the surgery. Failing to do so is bad medicine, and it puts medical staff and the institutions at deserved legal risk.

It can be daunting for patients, however, to speak up — and to keep doing so — if medical and hospital personnel flat out ignore them, as they never should do. Many of the big medical malpractice cases that have attracted major media attention in recent days have shared the terrible failing of folks in the know or in positions of power plugging their ears and eyes to problem practitioners or risky situations.

If patients feel their doctor is snubbing them or their concerns (“gas lighting” them, as the current parlance describes it), they should freely seek other expert medical help and opinions — including seeking reliable, appropriate counsel from experienced nurses, pharmacists, or others who may be able to assist them. Patients should speak up and complain to hospitals. They should seek redress in medical licensing boards, though these regulators too often fall short, research and experience show. Don’t hesitate, of course, to call on responsive and responsible legal counsel if you feel you have been harmed while receiving medical services.

We have much work to do to ensure that our medical care is safe, accessible, affordable, efficient, and excellent. It should not take years and hundreds of formal complaints to see that this occurs.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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