A former senior medical officer at Bethesda Naval Hospital testified yesterday that he asked for an investigation into past professional problems of heart surgeon Cmdr. Donal M. Billig in October 1983 and was harshly chastised by top naval officials for "trying to ruin the reputation of a man and the reputation of Bethesda."
Capt. Leon Hodges, former executive officer at the hospital and now commanding officer at Philadelphia Naval Hospital, said yesterday he was "chewed out severely" by Bethesda's former commanding officer James Quinn when he raised concerns and later was told not to appear at a hospital hearing to review Billig's work.
Billig, who later became the head of the cardiothoracic unit at Bethesda, is now being court-martialed on five charges of involuntary manslaughter for operations he conducted there in 1983 and 1984.
Hodges' statements yesterday were the first to outline a pattern of management problems at Bethesda in 1983. His testimony followed appearances from Quinn, who is now retired and who has been censured for his role in the Billig episode, and Dr. Cyril Arvanitis, chief of surgery at Monmouth Medical Center, a New Jersey hospital that banned Billig from its operating room.
Arvanitis said he and hospital attorneys wrote a four-page letter in March 1983 to Bethesda officials after the Navy asked about his record at the hospital. Billig had been ousted in 1981 after what Arvanitis said yesterday was a "very, very painful" 15-month investigation of Billig's competence. He also said he talked by phone with a Bethesda official that he thought was Quinn.
Quinn, who retired with the rank of captain, testified the hospital became aware of Billig's past in March 1983 -- three months after he joined the Navy -- during a review of his credentials but discounted the problem based on documentation supplied by Billig's attorney.
Hodges said he started the probe of Billig by suspending Billig from operating on Oct. 21, 1983, after Billig said his ex-wife was threatening to reveal some problems he had had at a New Jersey hospital. Hodges said that after Billig's comments, he inspected the doctor's application file and found the Monmouth letter.
He said he also found a Navy form, signed by Billig during his first month at Bethesda in January 1983, that indicated he had never lost operating privileges at any hospital. Hodges said he then asked for the investigation but that his efforts were criticized by his superiors.
Quinn "accused me of trying to ruin the reputation of a skilled physician and ruining the reputation of a program that had taken years to build up at Bethesda," Hodges said. Quinn by then had left Bethesda and was in charge of health care operations at the Naval Medical Command in Washington.
He also said that he received similar warnings from two hospital officials, commanding officer Capt. Raymond Johnson and chief of surgery Capt. John Raymond Fletcher.
Hodges testified that he considered the hospital review findings "conflicting and inconsistent." He asked Johnson for a more complete investigation and was refused, he said.
Hodges said he was later ordered by Johnson not to appear at the Nov. 30 hearing for Billig. At that meeting, he testified, Billig received operating privileges at Bethesda.