June 27, 2005

Australian nurse feared for job in ‘Dr Death’ case

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian nurse feared she could be
sacked or prosecuted when she repeatedly tried to warn
authorities about an Indian-born surgeon dubbed "Dr Death," who
has been linked to the deaths of 87 patients.

Jayant Patel, who was banned from surgery in two U.S.
states, left Australia in March after he was linked to the
deaths at Bundaberg Hospital in Queensland state in 2003-04,
when he was head of surgery at the hospital.

Toni Hoffman, Bundaberg hospital's head intensive care
nurse, said on Monday she had raised concerns with health,
nursing and hospital officials, as well as the state coroner
and police, before an internal audit was finally ordered.

She said officials told her they would not release the
results of the audit and Patel was named "employee of the
month" soon after.

The hospital paid for his airfare to leave Australia, media
have reported, before authorities began to take seriously
claims against Patel, who could face murder, negligence and
fraud charges if he returns.

Patel is believed to be in the United States. He has not
spoken publicly about the claims, which have been detailed
during an official Australian inquiry.

His family in India has said they stand by him and
described him as the brightest student ever to pass through
their local medical college.

Hoffman said she had spoken to police, the Queensland
coroner and up to 12 other officials about patient deaths
before she went to a state lawmaker and authorities began to
take her seriously.

She said doctors at the hospital and others had warned her
about speaking against Patel even after he left.

"One of the senior doctors came into my office and said to
me 'You'll be lucky to keep your job after this'," Hoffman told
Australian Broadcasting Corp. television's "Australian Story."

"This could so easily have ended there. I could have faced
disciplinary action, may have lost my job, and had been
threatened with jail time," she said.

The internal audit was launched after Hoffman originally
raised concerns about 14 separate cases.

Other staff said opinions changed once local newspapers
began reporting on the claims and Internet searches revealed
Patel's medical record in the United States.

"I guess that's when the tide turned and staff then
realized that they had been conned," said Jenny White, a former
theater nurse at Bundaberg Hospital.

The official inquiry was launched soon after.

"People think that because you work with death and dying on
a daily basis that you become immune to it, but I've been a
nurse for 20 years and I'm not. I still cry when my patients
die," Hoffman said.