JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The News4JAX I-TEAM has obtained an audio recording cited by plaintiffs in recently filed court documents where a former Ascension St. Vincent’s orthopedic surgeon can be heard slurring his speech during an office visit.
A deposition video also obtained by News4JAX shows Dr. David Heekin appearing disoriented, slurring his words and having outbursts just months after his last surgeries.
Heekin is accused of botching hundreds of surgeries and faces 350 lawsuits alleging he operated on patients while he had a progressive neurological condition. The plaintiffs say numerous healthcare employees and patients noticed he had slurred speech and loss of balance and that he showed poor judgment and mood disturbances in his final years as a surgeon.
In hundreds of pages of documents, plaintiffs say hospital leadership was aware of the issues with Dr. Heekin for years but continued to allow him to operate.
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Plaintiff’s attorneys are asking for permission to seek punitive damages against St. Vincent’s Medical Center laying out their evidence in nearly 500 pages that detail botched surgeries, erratic behavior from the doctor, and documents suggesting that leadership at the hospital were alerted about his unfitness to operate.
The plaintiffs say Dr. Heekin became the founder and director of St. Vincent’s Orthopedic Center of Excellence around 2012 and a promotional video was cited in their request to the court seeking permission to pursue punitive damages.
The plaintiffs allege the doctor changed when he got sick with a progressive neurological condition but continued to operate for years, causing hundreds of devastating injuries to patients from 2016 to 2020.
Plaintiffs allege Dr. Heekin can be heard on an audio recording slurring his speech during an office visit in February 2019.
Court records show a deposition of Dr. Heekin that was taken for a medical malpractice lawsuit in August of 2020, months after he retired.
“Towards the beginning of your deposition, you were asked about your retirement in July of this year. Do you recall that?” a lawyer asks.
“Yes,” Heekin responds.
“Doctor, I apologize for asking, but have you been diagnosed with a medical condition that makes it difficult for you to express your testimony today?” the lawyer asks.
“Yes,” Heekin says.
“Does your medical condition, does it play some role in your decision to retire?” they ask.
“Yes,” he says again.
Hundreds of lawsuits allege Dr. Heekin would lose his temper and intimidate other healthcare providers at St. Vincent’s, often using inappropriate language that was consistent with a lack of impulse control.
The daughter of a patient provided a statement cited by the plaintiffs in a recent filing, saying Dr. Heekin did a knee replacement on her mom in 2018 and she was brought back to the emergency room a month later when her wound opened up.
The statement claims that when Dr. Heekin arrived that day, he was belligerent, slurring his speech, shaking, sweating and screaming at staff and her mother, telling her she “was toast.”
The statement also claims that Dr. Heekin was stumbling and mumbling. The Chief Medical Officer was called to diffuse the situation, and the woman and her family told him about Dr. Heekin’s demeanor and behavior, saying they thought he had been strung out on drugs or had Parkinson’s.
His response? Dr. Heekin was just “passionate” about his patients and he was comfortable with him performing surgery, according to the statement, saying Dr. Heekin was born with a speech impediment. The plaintiffs allege that’s a lie.
The plaintiffs allege independent orthopedic doctors in the area saw so many inexplicably devastated patients of Dr. Heekin’s that one of them texted St. Vincent’s CEO Tom VanOsdol in January of 2020.
“We’re seeing a large uptake of SEVERE complication from Dr. Heekin. These patients will end up with above knee amputations and girdlestones,” the text read, referring to a salvage procedure that essentially permanently confines patients to wheelchairs. “I’m going to stop seeing his patients because I can’t take care of them all.”
The CEO responded it’s “very important for us to understand and investigate” and said he’d put the doctor in touch with St. Vincent’s Chief Medical Officer. However, Dr. Heekin continued performing surgeries that harmed patients at the hospital for months, lawsuits allege.
Four days later, plaintiffs say employees texted each other: “No one is doing anything about it. He is out of his mind today. He’s so confused.” The texts continue to read, “he can’t form a full sentence.”
But even before then, the plaintiffs say leadership knew of possible issues with the Chief Nursing Officer saying in a deposition that the Chief Medical Officer was alerted about the doctor soiling himself in an airport in 2018, but she’s not aware of any call to action.
It’s also alleged that in September of 2019, Dr. Heekin crashed into a parked car “in broad daylight on a clear day” in the parking lot at St. Vincent’s and performed surgeries the same day, including on Jacqueline Rivera, who previously told the I-TEAM, the knee replacement left her legs different lengths.
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“It’s just heartbreaking, you know, that we trust these hospitals. We trust our doctors,” Rivera said. “But you’re going to take advantage of your patients in that way?”
A St. Vincent’s employee testified that she brought concerns about Dr. Heekin to the clinical coordinator 10 to 15 times and in a meeting with the clinical coordinator and The Director of Surgical Services in 2019, she reported the director said essentially the same thing as the clinical coordinator: ”Patients are willingly going to him. They see how he talked before. It’s their choice.”
The plaintiffs say the evidence is clear: the hospital knew Dr. Heekin wasn’t fit to perform surgeries in his final years there, but they let him continue to operate anyway.
The plaintiffs also allege the hospital disregarded patients’ complaints, saying the doctor was an independent contractor.
The hospital will have a chance to respond to the plaintiffs’ request to seek punitive damages, but court records show nothing has been filed yet.
In other court records, the hospital has denied allegations of wrongdoing and filed its own cross-claim against Dr. Heekin and the Heekin Clinic, alleging the doctor — not the hospital — should be liable to the plaintiffs for damages.
An attorney representing St. Vincent’s declined to comment to News4JAX about this story and we have not yet heard back as of Wednesday from attorneys for Dr. Heekin and the Heekin Clinic.