SUNY Downstate surgeons say they were fired after blowing the whistle on dangerous conditions
Two noted transplant surgeons claim they were fired by SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn in retaliation for raising concerns about shoddy care, dangerous conditions and poor staffing levels in their departments.
Dr. Wayne Riley, president of SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday, “While I cannot comment on any specifics involving an ongoing litigation matter, I do, however, need to stress that the priority of our hospital is and continues to be to provide the highest quality care to our patients.”
Lawsuits filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court by Downstate’s former chair of the Department of Surgery and Chief of Transplant, Dr. Rainer Gruessner, and surgeon Dr. John Renz allege that negligent practices in the cardiothoracic surgery and intensive care units led to patient deaths and excessive transplant rejections. The lawsuits were filed against SUNY and SUNY Downstate, located at 450 Clarkson Ave.
Dr. Gruessner first entered the public eye when he headed the team of surgeons who saved the life of former Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords after she and others were shot in Arizona in 2011.
He said in court papers that his team’s discoveries led to his termination from his positions as Downstate’s Chair of the Department and Chief of Transplant, and the outright firing of his staff.
Gruessner, who was hired to turn Downstate’s Cardiothoracic Program and General Surgery Residency program around, said that safety problems included a “complete lack” of the required 24/7 coverage of patients in the cardiothoracic surgery and cardiothoracic intensive care units. Three patients died within a one-year period on days when there was no coverage, he said.
Transplants failed, in some cases, because not enough immunosuppression medication was prescribed to the patient, Gruessner alleged. In one instance, a patient bled to death when the on-call attending physician could not be reached. “The resident responsible for intubating the patient was so inexperienced that he was almost shocked by the defibrillator,” he said.
The Pediatric Surgery program also lacked the required 24/7 coverage. But his efforts to recruit a second pediatric surgeon were nixed by Downstate, Gruessner said.
Downstate President Riley, said, however, “Let me be clear: If our hospital uncovers misconduct of any kind that threatens the safety of our patients, we will always move swiftly and firmly to investigate. And if there is cause to take action and terminate an employee, we will do it without hesitation, to ensure it never happens again.”
He added, “We make no apologies about our tireless commitment to uphold the highest standards at our hospitals and our unwavering compassion for our patients.”
Dr. Renz, a member of Gruessner’s team, entered into his own court case a letter to Downstate CEO Patricia Winston dated August 14, where he described shockingly lax behavior by doctors at Downstate. He alleged that cleaners found “multiple bottles of alcohol” in the office of one departed surgeon, along with “what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.”
Another surgeon had left “foreign objects” inside the bodies of two patients, not noticing the objects despite “multiple clinic visits, hospitalizations, and, in one case, an ultrasound, X-ray and discharge summary all of which noted a retained stent,” Renz wrote.
Renz alleged that this same surgeon abandoned a patient on the operating table while Renz and Gruessner were out of town, “and left the patient in the OR to be transported to the ICU by surgical residents.” There, the patient rapidly deteriorated. Renz and Gruessner took emergency flights back to Brooklyn and saved the patient’s life, he wrote.
Renz claims that Downstate reneged on a three-year contract after he spoke out about the poor conditions. His letter from Human Resources said that the decision was not related to his performance, but the “operational needs” of the department.
Dr. Renz’s computer and personal hard drives, which contained data and reports on the causes of past graft losses, patient deaths and recommendations for improvements in patient safety, were seized, his email access restricted, and Dr. Renz was escorted by security from the premises, Gruessner said in his filing. When Renz received his hard drive back, it had been destroyed.
When Gruessner was named chair of surgery at SUNY Downstate, the hospital published a release calling the doctor, who has published hundreds of manuscripts, “a nationally renowned surgeon and clinical innovator, a prolific academic, a committed educator and a successful and experienced department chair.”
According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, SUNY Downstate reported poor patient outcomes for transplant procedures. These include long wait times to get a transplant, the longest hospitalization times for kidney transplants and the poorest three-year graft survival rates in the state.
Downstate earned a “C” as the Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade. Leapfrog uses national performance measures from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Leapfrog Hospital Survey and other data sources on 28 measures.
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