Lawsuits allege Ascension St. Vincent’s knew doctor wasn’t fit to operate, but allowed him to perform surgeries

Dr. David Heekin relinquished medical license in 2021 at conclusion of state Board of Medicine investigation, records show

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly 350 lawsuits have been filed against a former orthopedic surgeon in Jacksonville, alleging he caused hundreds of injuries while operating with a neurological condition that caused him to slur his speech and lose his balance.

Dr. David Heekin formerly practiced at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital and the Heekin Clinic before voluntarily relinquishing his medical license in 2021 at the conclusion of a state Board of Medicine investigation, records show.

The I-TEAM spoke with the plaintiffs in one of those lawsuits. They say a knee replacement left the patient using a wheelchair for months.

In lawsuits, they and other plaintiffs allege leadership at Ascension St. Vincent’s knew this doctor wasn’t fit to operate, but still allowed him to perform surgeries, putting patients at risk and making money doing it.

Roberta Musto said that in 2019, she went to Heekin for a knee replacement.

“I was hoping it would make it like a new knee, that it wouldn’t hurt me anymore,” Musto said.

“We did our homework on him,” said her husband, Larry. “He did the most that we could see of joint replacements in Florida.”

But the couple said the surgery didn’t go as expected.

After the surgery, Larry Musto said Heekin approached him in the waiting room, slurring his words and grasping at the walls and furniture to steady himself.

“I thought he was intoxicated, but, you know, we knew he wasn’t. He was a surgeon. He just came out of the operating room to talk to us,” Larry Musto said. “I originally thought maybe he had had a stroke or some issue. He told me, and I had to ask him several times to repeat himself, that there was complications in the procedure, the patella tendon was ruptured sometime during the procedure.”

According to a report published in the orthopedic journal Reconstructive Review, a tear of the patella tendon after knee replacements happens in less than 1% of cases.

Roberta Musto said she was discharged the next day, but soon afterward, Larry called 911 because she was bleeding so much, leading her to be re-admitted.

“I had to keep it straight for 12 weeks. Couldn’t walk,” she said. “My knee had to stay straight, so I spent most of the time in the wheelchair with the leg extended.”

They said they got a second opinion a few months later.

“He looked at that X-ray and the first thing out of his mouth was, he said, ‘This is as bad as it gets,’” Larry Musto said.

Heekin has now been accused in lawsuits of causing hundreds of injuries in patients from 2016 to 2020, when he was an orthopedic surgeon for Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital. Attorneys allege Heekin had been diagnosed with a progressive neurological condition that can cause problems with balance, coordination, eye movement, and cognition that severely impacted his ability to practice medicine and perform surgery.

Attorneys also say numerous health care providers and patients brought their concerns about Heekin’s physical and mental state to St. Vincent’s Medical Center, but the health system never stopped him from operating.

In lawsuits, plaintiffs say St. Vincent’s Medical Center billed millions for surgeries performed by Heekin over the years and that they didn’t protect patients from an unfit surgeon so they could continue to profit from it.

“That is wrong. Absolutely wrong,” Larry Musto said. “The welfare of the people in that hospital should be paramount to anything else, including the bottom line.

In the meantime, Roberta Musto is using a walker, going to rehab and waiting for her day in court.

An attorney representing St. Vincent’s declined to comment. Attorneys for Heekin and the Heekin Clinic did not respond to our request for comment by publication of this article.

About the Author:

I-TEAM and general assignment reporter