Patients trusted Johns Hopkins gynecologist who allegedly videotaped them

For more than two decades, women came to see Johns Hopkins gynecologist Nikita Levy and trusted him with not only the most private parts of their bodies but also with their innermost secrets. Listening to problems with husbands and boyfriends, the joys and frustrations of motherhood, Levy was a caring confidant, said patients and co-workers.

On Tuesday, they were reeling from the news that their doctor had committed suicide after being accused of surreptitiously videotaping and photographing many of his patients. Police said they have removed nearly 10 image-filled computer hard drives from Levy’s home in Towson, Md.

“Never in a thousand years would I have imagined such a thing,” said Deborah Doerfer, a certified nurse midwife who worked with Levy off and on for nearly 20 years. “He was in­cred­ibly compassionate. He was always there to take care of his patients. They expected him to be on call 24/7, and he was.”

Police would not speculate how many images the hard drives may contain, nor when Levy allegedly began recording them. Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police found multiple cameras in at least one examination room, although he would not describe how they were hidden.

“There are multiple multimedia videos and photographs on servers and hard drives,” Guglielmi said. “We just don’t know how many. We envision there are a lot. . . . We think the victim pool could be quite large.”

Levy, 54, a graduate of Cornell University Medical College, had worked at Johns Hopkins’s East Baltimore Medical Center since 1988, Johns Hopkins Medicine officials said. It is a community clinic that serves the largely low-income and African American surrounding neighborhood. Doerfer, who worked with Levy there for the past decade, said doctors were required to see about 25 patients a day.

“He had one of the biggest fan clubs in Baltimore, and he was always very, very busy,” Doerfer said. “People wanted to see him. He had an extensive patient population.”

And they all trusted him deeply, she said. “He saw some of the same patients for many, many years. They trusted him with their most intimate secrets. We hear it all. We were all their trusted confidants.”

Doerfer said that Levy had been married to a “lovely, sweet” woman for more than 20 years and that they had two college-age children. No one answered the phone at the Levys’ home, but a relative responded in an e-mail that “the family requests privacy during this very difficult time.”

Baltimore police said they plan on enlisting the help of federal authorities to plow through Levy’s hard drives, which were seized as a result of multiple search warrants. They cautioned that the investigation could be time-consuming and cumbersome, possibly requiring matching time stamps on videos to appointment logs. Detectives have reviewed only a handful of the videos and have not yet matched victims to images.

Some former patients expressed heartfelt sympathy for the family and remembered Levy warmly on social media sites. “You were the best doctor I ever had,” Jyllene Wilson wrote on the local Baltimore CBS affiliate’s Web site. “I remember when I lost the child you held my hand and cried with us.”

But other patients were beginning to panic. Guglielmi said officers in his office fielded more than 50 calls from patients Tuesday, and more calls came into the sex offense unit, various district stations and to the department’s main communication line.

Police set up a hotline — 410-396-2269 — for former patients to call. They can leave their names and the dates they saw Levy, and a detective will contact them. Patients also can call a hotline set up by Johns Hopkins Medicine — 443-997 -7000 — to arrange for counseling.

Deshawn Moody had not been to see Levy in many years. But that did not give her any comfort. “I want to know how long this has been going on,” she said. “It really surprises me. He didn’t seem like a weirdo or anything.”

A search of Levy’s medical records turned up no complaints, disciplinary action or malpractice claims.

Hopkins officials sent a statement to Levy’s patients Tuesday explaining that one of Levy’s co-workers contacted Hopkins’s security department Feb. 4 about the alleged photos and videos. Within a day, “we determined that Dr. Levy had been illegally and without our knowledge, photographing his patients and possibly others with his personal photographic and video equipment and storing those images electronically,” the statement read.

Levy was prohibited from contacting patients, and the investigation was turned over to Baltimore police. “In light of this information, which Dr. Levy acknowledged, we ended his employment on February 8.” Hopkins offered Levy counseling, and officials sent Levy's patients a letter advising them to reschedule their appointments with another doctor.

“This is such a unique situation,” said Johns Hopkins Medicine spokeswoman Kim Hoppe, saying that any invasion of privacy is intolerable and in violation of Hopkins’s code of conduct and federal privacy laws. “Our patients are our first priority. We hope they will appreciate that we initiated this whole process. We are the ones that contacted the police. And the board is hiring an independent investigator for our own investigation.”

Ken Ravenelle, a Baltimore lawyer whom Levy hired for his defense, would not comment on Hopkins’s assertion that Levy admitted to the illegal videotaping, saying the attorney-client privilege extended beyond the grave. “The only thing I can say is, we should all be mindful that he’s never been charged with any crime.”

Guglielmi said detectives had not yet interviewed Levy when the doctor took his own life in the basement of his Baltimore County home.

Cpl. Cathy Batton, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman, said a cause of death has not yet been determined.

Although Batton said Levy’s death is being investigated as a suicide, she said it might take more time to say precisely how he apparently killed himself. She said neither a gun nor a knife was used, but she would not reveal further details.

Batton said a note was found near his body, but she declined to reveal its contents.

Lois Shepherd, an expert on biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia, said an examination by an OB-GYN is about as vulnerable as a patient can get and, if the allegations against Levy are true, would represent a terrible violation of trust.

“We take pains to teach techniques about how to drape patients so they feel comfortable, so they don’t feel exposed,” she said. “Everybody understands what’s at stake here. Just like when we’re in surgery and under anesthesia, we trust that our body will be exposed as necessary for a procedure, but not more than necessary. And certainly not for people’s titillation, or even for their curiosity.”

Doctors have been sanctioned for snapping photos of patients during surgery, for posting or writing anything with identifying information about patients or even for looking at their medical records out of curiosity, she said.

Guglielmi said that with the prime suspect dead, the investigation centers on determining whether anyone else was involved and ensuring that the victims have an account of what happened.

Guglielmi called the allegations “egregious violations of the trust a doctor has with his patients. That’s what so unnerving about this whole process. Patients have a right to know if they’ve been violated. We have to tell them, to give them some sort of closure and solace.”

Magda Jean-Louis and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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