High-level officials of the Bethesda Naval Hospital were told at a meeting in June 1983 that Cmdr. Donal M. Billig, who faces court-martial in connection with the deaths of four patients at that hospital, was "incompetent and operated at the level of a first-year surgeon," the former head of cardiac surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center said yesterday.
Army Col. Russ Zajtchuk, now assigned to the National Defense University and chairman of the cardiothoracic department of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, operated "eight or nine times" with Billig before voicing his concerns to then Chief of Surgery Raymond Fletcher, he said. Fletcher, one of several physicians facing sanctions in the Billig case, declined comment.
Zajtchuk said he had also told Bethesda medical personnel that although physicians had written letters supporting Billig's appointment, Zajtchuk had had conversations with private doctors who warned against hiring him.
Based on those conversations, Zajtchuk said he told Dr. Judy Schwartz, then head of cardiothoracic surgery at Bethesda: "You don't want to have anything to do with him. He's incompetent."
Navy spokesmen would not comment on Zajtchuk's statement.
"I told people at Bethesda, but they hired him anyway," Zajtchuk said. "Primarily, they were short of cardiothoracic surgeons."
Zajtchuk's comments, in an interview, come weeks before Billig is scheduled to defend himself against involuntary manslaughter charges brought by the Navy in the deaths of four heart patients. He also faces charges of dereliction of duty in 22 other heart operations he performed while at Bethesda from January 1983 through November 1984.
To date, seven persons have filed $37 million worth of claims against the Naval Legal Services Office for injuries or deaths resulting from operations performed by Billig, a Navy spokesman said.
Zajtchuk said he spoke to Billig about some concerns before the June 1983 meeting. Zajtchuk said he had told Billig earlier to visit an eye doctor because he suspected Billig suffered from a sight deficiency that he tried to alleviate by squinting during operations.
"I was scared operating with him," said Zajtchuk, who was then assigned to Walter Reed and also operated at the Bethesda hospital.
Billig was at the June meeting, as was Robert Cochran, former chief of surgery for the hospital, and another heart surgeon who operated at Bethesda, Zajtchuk said. Zajtchuk said Billig responded to his blunt appraisal by saying: "That's your opinion."
Lt. Neil Worden, Billig's attorney, would not discuss Zajtchuk's statements. "We're facing a court-martial and I'd rather not talk about it," he said.