Patients secretly taped by Johns Hopkins doctor win $190 million settlement but want answers

When Jyllene Edwards Wilson had a problem — a cold, an ache or odd pains — she called her ob/gyn of 20 years. When he changed offices, she followed him. When she and her husband’s hopes of conceiving a child ended in an ectopic pregnancy, the doctor held her hand and cried with them both.

Nikita Levy, she said, was like family.

So when police discovered in February 2013 that Levy, the Johns Hopkins gynecologist Wilson thought of as “gentle and caring,” had been secretly taking thousands of sexually explicit videos and photos of his patients with a tiny camera hidden in pens or key fobs, Wilson at first didn’t believe it.

Now, she is too ashamed to face the host of friends and family she enthusiastically referred to Levy. And she has yet to see a doctor again or step foot in the East Baltimore clinic where Levy practiced.

“I trusted this man with my innermost parts and my innermost secrets,” she said. “Now, I’m not trusting anyone. Not at all.”

Wilson is one of about 8,500 women who are part of a class-action lawsuit against Johns Hopkins Hospital alleging a grotesque violation of their trust and their privacy. On Monday, Hopkins agreed to pay $190 million to settle their claims.

In court papers filed last week, the women also allege that Levy performed unnecessary and excessive pelvic examinations, touched them in inappropriate ways and sometimes saw them alone, failing to follow the routine practice of having another medical staffer in the room.

Wilson said she is not the only one who hasn’t been to the doctor since the investigation was made public in February 2013. Levy took his life shortly thereafter.

“These women are distraught. They’re in fear. Angry. Anxious. They feel betrayed,” said the women’s attorney, Jonathan Schochor. “Many of them have just dropped out of the medical system. They’re not going to physicians. They’re not getting tests done. And many are not taking their children, either.”

Levy, who was 54 when he died, was a graduate of Cornell University Medical College and had worked at Johns Hopkins’s East Baltimore Medical Center since 1988. It is a community clinic that serves the largely low-income and African American surrounding neighborhood.

Although 12,500 women signed onto the class action, Schochor said that some names may be duplicates. He estimates that 8,500 women will ultimately be compensated. The women will be assessed by a forensic psychiatrist, he said, divided into four classes, from mild to severe experiences, perceptions and symptoms, and an allocation team will recommend amounts for each plaintiff.

Schochor said the settlement, which received preliminary approval from the Baltimore City Circuit Court, will now proceed to a fairness hearing, set for Sept. 19. And, if there are no appeals, it could be finalized in mid-October.

Schochor, who said he has been filing medical malpractice claims against Hopkins since 1974, said he and the other plaintiff attorneys have been in “brutal negotiations” with Johns Hopkins for 18 months. He commended the hospital for signing off on the settlement agreement.

“This is a significant step forward,” Schochor said. “Everyone is very hopeful that the final fairness hearing will end in fair compensation for Dr. Levy’s patients, so everyone can put this catastrophic event behind them.”

Johns Hopkins Hospital spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said that funds for the settlement will be paid through insurance and would not affect patient services.

“It is our hope that this settlement — and findings by law enforcement that images were not shared — helps those affected achieve a measure of closure,” she said in a statement. “We assure you that one individual does not define Johns Hopkins.”

But Wilson, Levy’s longtime patient, said she is far from closure, much less understanding.

“I wish I could have some closure. This was a person I knew and grew to love. He was the only doctor I ever gave Christmas presents to,” she said. “But then he killed himself, and left us all wondering, why did he do this? I feel like such a fool.”

A co-worker contacted Johns Hopkins Hospital’s security department Feb. 4, 2013, about Levy, and within a day, according to hospital officials, they determined the gynecologist had been taking photos and videos of his patients without their knowledge or consent. He was fired Feb. 8 as Baltimore police began to investigate.

Police seized six cameras concealed in pens, two cameras hidden in key fobs, four computers and external hard drives from Levy’s Towson, Md.-area home. He was found dead Feb. 18, a helium-filled plastic bag over his head. He had left a note of apology to his wife. Police concluded their investigation in March 2014.

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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Brigid Schulte · July 21