The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Case of doctor caught trashing man during surgery comes amid push for cameras in operating rooms

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Though a Vienna man felt insulted and humiliated after he listened to an audio recording of two doctors insulting him during his colonoscopy, the actual procedure proceeded without incident. But a movement is afoot to put cameras in operating rooms around the country, after a woman died from an anesthesia overdose, in order to both capture alleged malpractice and deter bad behavior during surgery, the movement’s founder said Wednesday.

Earlier this month, four state representatives in Wisconsin have introduced legislation to enable the “Julie Ayer Rubenzer Law,” believed to be the first of its kind in the country, which would mandate that any place where surgery is performed must “offer surgical patients the option to have their surgical procedures videotaped.” Julie Ayer Rubenzer of Waukesha died in 2003 after she was given excessive amounts of propofol during breast enhancement surgery. Propofol is the same drug which killed singer Michael Jackson.

Ayer’s brother, Wade Ayer, has formed the National Organization for Medical Malpractice Victims and is a driving force behind the proposed legislation. He was shocked to find that prosecutors in Florida, where his sister received the overdose, declined to press charges against the doctor even though he did not use an anesthesiologist and had his medical license revoked. He said a “black box” in operating rooms, with separate audio and video recorders, would help aggrieved patients and their families make cases for malpractice. Hospital and medical associations have already registered their opposition to the bill, which is not expected to pass the Wisconsin legislature before its adjournment this year.

Ayer said he is helping patients and families “gather the data, gather the stories. They have nowhere else to turn. Right now they can’t get the data they need to support them in a court of law.” He is also advocating for a national database of medical malpractice rulings and verdicts.

Rep. Christine Sinicki (D), one of the bill’s chief patrons, said she introduced the Wisconsin legislation “after hearing stories from families affected by malpractice, and a lot of people felt the way to rein this in and catch it is to record everything in the operating room.” Sinicki said “it’s going to act as a deterrent to this type of behavior” in the Vienna man’s case. “It can be a patient protection tool and it can also act as a tool to help doctors disprove malpractice claims. It can be looked at from all sides, this is not just about dealing with bad doctors.”

In the case of the Vienna man, who wanted to record only his post-operative instructions but instead heard an extended conversation between anesthesiologist Tiffany Ingham and gastroenterologist Soloman Shah, “we know cameras change body language and behavior,” Ayer said. The presence of the “surgical black box” likely would have deterred Ingham and Shah from making their comments, Ayer said.

The Vienna man sued the two doctors last year. His case went to trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court last week. On the day of trial, Shah and his practice were dismissed from the case. Ingham and her practice went to trial and were ordered to pay the man $500,000: $100,000 for defamation, $200,000 for medical malpractice and $200,000 in punitive damages.

The harm from the insulting comments made by the doctors is real, according to Nicholas Carroll, author of the book “Fighting Slander.” Carroll said he often helps people or their lawyers pursue defamation actions. He said the Vienna man’s “claims of emotional distress are completely consistent with the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with defamation victims.” Carroll said “the emotional trauma ranges from significant to completely debilitating” and that inevitably “the defamation was almost relentlessly troubling them.”

This post has been updated to add the comments of Rep. Sinicki.