JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Legal filings from the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings show St. Vincent’s Medical Center has agreed to accept liability and participate in arbitration proceedings for the purpose of determining damage amounts in at least a few of the hundreds of lawsuits filed against the health system and a former orthopedic surgeon there.
Other patients whose lawsuits are pending in civil court allege in their complaint that Dr. David Heekin caused hundreds of devastating injuries during knee and hip replacements because he was operating while impaired by a progressive neurological condition from 2016 to 2020, and that the hospital knew he was impaired, but didn’t protect patients. .
The hospital has denied allegations of wrongdoing. The I-TEAM has obtained video of Heekin from a 2019 deposition while he was still practicing that shows him slurring his speech, a symptom that plaintiffs allege was caused by progressive supranuclear palsy.
We’ve also obtained the transcripts of depositions given by St. Vincent’s Chief Medical Officer and former Director of Surgical Services. In their depositions, both testified about the concerns brought to them about Heekin and how they reacted.
A clip from a separate deposition of Heekin in August of 2019 shows him testifying as an expert witness. He was a practicing orthopedic surgeon at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital at the time. In recent legal filings, plaintiffs allege that a clip from February 2019 recorded by a patient shows Heekin slurring his speech .
St. Vincent’s Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Mathison was shown those audio and video clips during his 2021 deposition.
He said, “I did not hear a difference in that audio from what I normally hear of Dr. Heekin,” and the video clip was consistent in how he remembered Heekin from 2018.
In his deposition, Mathison says Heekin was known for outbursts from before 2018, when he arrived at the hospital.
Heekin is now accused of botching hundreds of surgeries from 2016 to 2020, with plaintiffs alleging he was impaired by progressive supranuclear palsy, which according to Mayo Clinic is a rare brain disorder caused by brain cell deterioration that worsens over time. Signs and symptoms include loss of balance and poor eye movement, in addition to slurred speech, impulsive behavior and cognitive difficulties, which may mimic Parkinson’s and dementia, according to Mayo Clinic.
According to Don Galloway, the former director of surgical services at St. Vincent’s Riverside, Heekin’s decline was discussed among health care providers at the hospital, with multiple people bringing complaints about him, including concerns that he was impaired, “not the same surgeon,” and “a shell of the man he once was.” There were concerns about the doctor’s speech, gait, and overall affect.
Galloway testified that he did not notice any changes in Heekin’s physical or mental abilities when he first met him in September 2019 to when Heekin retired in April of 2020.
The CMO testified that he relied on operating room leadership like Galloway to raise issues to him.
But Galloway’s deposition testimony reflects that he dismissed some nurses and surgical technicians’ concerns about Heekin as “hearsay” or “gossip” that was “emotional” or “dramatic,” saying he needed to assess complaints before taking them to the CMO. He said he would spend about five or six minutes in the OR with Heekin to determine whether any concerns were apparent and if he didn’t observe anything abnormal, no concerns would be reported.
Galloway also testified in his deposition that one of his responsibilities was to generate case volume, figuring out how to do more cases in a day — and he spoke to the CEO in March of 2020 about a revenue victory, saying surgical services had a record month.
The CMO testified that he initiated an investigation into Heekin’s conduct in September 2019, when a surgery of Heekin’s was canceled after the patient’s family said they didn’t feel comfortable with him operating because he looked tired and wasn’t making sense.
The CMO testified that he immediately activated the medical staff license practitioner health committee, which remained active through the rest of Heekin’s career. He also testified that he told Heekin that he needed to voluntarily stop doing surgery in their facility until they could adequately investigate.
He testified Heekin was cleared to practice by a neurologist on by Oct. 6.
After that, plaintiffs allege, health care providers continued to complain about Heekin, Galloway saying a robot was brought in to help Heekin operate near the end of his career because there were concerns about his surgical outcome. Galloway also testified that the CMO told him he hoped COVID would lead Dr. Heekin to retire.
Galloway said Heekin carried weight at St. Vincent’s and that “the hospital was built around Dr. Heekin’s Clinic.”
He testified that the patient should be the one to determine if a surgeon is impaired, but he also said diagnosing a physician’s underlying neurological condition is something a specialist would have to determine through tests.
Records show St. Vincent’s has accepted liability in some cases and agreed to participate in arbitration to determine the appropriate damage amounts, but in court records on a different case, the hospital has denied allegations of wrongdoing and filed its own cross claim and against Heekin and the Heekin Clinic, alleging the doctor—not the hospital—should be liable to the plaintiffs for damages.
An attorney for St. Vincent’s declined to comment. As of publication, we had not heard back from attorneys for Heekin and the Heekin Clinic.