June 27, 2008

‘Dr Death’ to Be Extradited After 17 Patients Die

While at the Bundaberg Base Hospital, Jayant Patel is alleged to have punctured vital organs during surgery, failed to detect obvious breast cancers and hernias, and tampered with patient notes to conceal his incompetence. Nurses were so alarmed by his surgical blunders that they hid patients from him as he roamed the wards in search of people to operate on.

More than 20 formal complaints were made, but they went unheeded, and Queensland health authorities helped Dr Patel to flee the country, buying him a one-way business-class ticket to the US. But he was arrested in his home of Oregon in March this year and put in a high-security prison in Portland, charged with 16 offences including three counts of manslaughter.

The 58-year-old had been expected to fight extradition but his lawyer told an American court yesterday that he had agreed to return to Australia to contest the allegations.

The Queensland hospital recruited Dr Patel in 2003 and promoted him to director of surgery, despite a history of disciplinary action against him in the US. In New York state, his licence was revoked in 2001 because of gross negligence, and in Oregon restrictions were placed on his licence to practice.

His Australian employers never checked his qualifications or references, hiring him solely on the basis of his curriculum vitae. At Bundaberg, he boasted to colleagues that he could perform any type of surgery.

Dr Patel allegedly amputated the leg of a diabetic Aboriginal woman, then "forgot about her". When discovered six days later, she was semi-comatose, and the stump of her leg was gangrenous.

One man allegedly bled to death after Dr Patel accidentally severed his aorta during surgery, while another died of internal bleeding after Dr Patel stabbed him 50 times with a large needle in an effort to drain fluid from around his heart.

Former patients and their relatives were jubilant to learn he would be returning to Australia to face trial. Beryl Crosby, a spokeswoman for one support group, said: "I was shaking all the way home and I haven't stopped crying. It's such a relief."

An investigation into suspicious deaths at the hospital was launched after a senior nurse, Toni Hoffman, sounded the alarm. She told the public inquiry: "We were seeing these patients dying every day and we couldn't do anything. We just thought, 'What on earth can we do to stop this man?' We'd taken to hiding patients and telling them they should ask to be transferred to Brisbane."

The hospital's director of medicine, Dr Peter Miach, allegedly saw Dr Patel carry out heart surgery on a man who was "moaning and screaming" because he was not anaesthetised. He also alleges that a cancer patient died on the operating table after Dr Patel ignored advice that he was too sick for surgery.

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