A Navy officer who helped recruit Cmdr. Donal M. Billig, the former chief of heart surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital now facing involuntary manslaughter charges, denied at a court-martial yesterday that he had lied to his superiors about his actions in helping bring Billig to the Navy.
In a separate court-martial, relatives of five patients who the Navy has charged Billig killed through culpable negligence told poignant stories of their loss.
"Did Dr. Billig ever tell you before your husband's surgery that this was his first heart operation in seven years?" a prosecutor asked Constance Coplan Farrell, wife of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harold Coplan. "No," she said.
"Did he tell you that this was the first heart surgery he had undertaken since an eye injury?" the prosecution asked again. "No, certainly not," said the Gaithersburg woman, whose husband, 60, died after an operation in March 1983.
What emerged from both trials was a conflicting and sometimes confusing account, based on incomplete Navy records, of how Billig joined the Navy and then was approved to perform heart surgery at Bethesda.
Hours of testimony in both trials raised questions about what procedures should have been followed in recruiting Billig, in investigating his past and in assigning him to a position at Bethesda where he undertook major heart operations in 1983 and 1984.
In the trial of Billig, for example, Capt. Dennis Wright, the former head of the Bethesda Hospital committee that reviewed doctors' performances, could not say by looking at hospital records when or whether Billig was informed in writing that some doctors had recommended that limitations be placed on his work. Whether that written statement was necessary later became an issue in other testimony.
Statements in the other trial, the court-martial of Cmdr. Reginald Newman, also show that some personnel files of physicians at the time Billig was commissioned in 1982 were routinely destroyed.
Newman, charged with lying about whether he had informed Navy officials about Billig's professional experience, including accusations by a New Jersey hospital that the doctor was not competent, told of the destruction of records and described an "informal" review process by which applicants are judged.
Newman said he argued that personnel files should be maintained as a quality control measure but that suggestion was rejected by a superior. The lack of records -- there is no documentation of which Navy doctors reviewed Billig's application -- has complicated the Newman trial for prosecutors and defense lawyers trying to prove the veracity of certain statements.
Newman admitted that his earlier statements to Navy investigators about Billig were inconsistent, but he said that he had relied on information from a subordinate officer, who is also charged with lying in the case but who is not on trial. Newman then denied that he instructed that officer, Lt. Cmdr. Jerry D. Penn, to alter an official document that might have tipped off officials to Billig's troubles at Monmouth Medical Center in New Jersey. Penn testified last week that Newman ordered the alteration.
"I would not have lied," Newman said. "It's just not my nature."
In the Billig trial, Wright testified that, by referring to minutes from the hospital credentials committee, he could not determine if all doctors who were required to approve Billig for complicated surgery had done so.
In addition, when asked whether there was documentation that restricted Billig to simple heart operations, Wright said he did not know. "Were these restrictions written down anywhere," Wright was asked by the defense attorney. "Not to my knowledge," Wright responded.
Wright also added that, during Billig's tenure at the hospital, the heart doctor was an asset because of his administrative skills. Billig "frankly taught us a lot" about establishing procedures by which to approve doctors' credentials, Wright said. "The procedures were not as refined as they are today."