Even his colleagues called Jayant Patel “Doctor Death”, and nurses were so alarmed by his conduct that they hid patients from him. But after eight years and three trials which cost A$3.5m (£1.98m), the US surgeon flew out of Australia yesterday convicted only of fraud – and planning to “go back to my work”.
Those words horrified the many Queenslanders who blame alleged surgical blunders by Dr Patel for maiming them or killing their loved ones. A public inquiry investigated 87 deaths to which he was linked, and concluded that 13 people had died as a result of his negligence.
However, repeated attempts to prosecute him failed, and this week the 63-year-old left Brisbane Supreme Court with just a two-year suspended sentence for fraudulently obtaining medical registration and employment. Queensland authorities paid his A$1,400 air fare back to his home state of Oregon.
Concerns were raised about Dr Patel within months of his starting work at Bundaberg Base Hospital, Queensland. The public inquiry heard that he amputated the leg of a diabetic Aboriginal woman, then “forgot about her”. Six days later, she was discovered, semi-comatose and gangrenous.
Dr Patel was also alleged to have carried out heart surgery on a man who was “moaning and screaming” because he was not anaesthetised, and to have operated on a cancer patient despite being told he was too sick for surgery. The patient died on the operating table. Dr Patel failed to detect obvious breast cancers, it was claimed, and repeatedly punctured vital organs during surgery.
Queensland health authorities hired him solely on the basis of a “deceitfully crafted” curriculum vitae. Had they checked his qualifications or references, they would have learnt that his licence to practise had been revoked in New York state because of gross negligence, while in Oregon restrictions had been placed on his licence. Instead, health officials appointed him director of surgery, and ignored the complaints against him for two years. In 2008, Dr Patel – who had resigned and returned to the US in 2005 – was extradited to Brisbane, where he was found guilty in 2010 of three counts of manslaughter and one of grievous bodily harm.
Two and a half years into a seven-year jail sentence, the verdicts were overturned on appeal, and two retrials failed to secure convictions. Last week, to the dismay of the surgeon’s alleged victims and their relatives, the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Tony Moynihan QC, dropped all but the fraud charges, to which Dr Patel pleaded guilty.
“It’s all over, and what a farce it’s been,” said Beryl Crosby, president of the Bundaberg Hospital Patients Support Group. “There was no justice at the end of it all.” Ms Crosby, who said she had promised patients on their deathbeds that she would fight until the end, described the withdrawal of the remaining manslaughter and grievous bodily harm charges as “devastating”.
The main obstacle for prosecutors was the conflicting medical evidence which led to deadlocked juries and the successful appeal. However, Terry Martin, the judge in the final case, told Dr Patel that he had “put the health and welfare of patients at risk”, and showed “no … genuine remorse”.
Dr Patel portrayed himself as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, saying that the legal saga had been “a long and very difficult journey”. Despite his bold pledge to return to work, it is doubtful that he will ever be employed again as a surgeon. Legal fees have reportedly left him broke.
Toni Hoffman, a senior nurse who “blew the whistle” on Dr Patel, said he appeared still not to “understand or accept the gravity of what’s happened”.
She said one man died of internal bleeding after the surgeon stabbed him 50 times with a large needle in an effort to drain fluid from a sac around his heart. “We were seeing these patients dying every day and we couldn’t do anything.”