Tracking "Eric the Red"

A lot of people have wanted Dr. Eric Scheffey banned from operating rooms. Noe Santana swears he'll succeed where others have failed.

A lot of people have wanted to end the controversial medical career of Eric Scheffey -- from the dozens of patients who've filed malpractice suits against him to the frustrated members of the state medical board who wanted to take away his license -- but Noe Santana is the only one who bought a bus to further his cause.

It was a beauty -- 46 seats, nice appointments, a barely used Trailways cruiser. Santana paid $60,000 for it last year without blinking. He had a plan, a dream, really, and he needed that bus. Every month he was going to fill it with outraged former patients of Scheffey, give them a nice lunch and bus them up to Austin to appear before the state Board of Medical Examiners.

Like others before him, though, Santana soon found out that taking on Eric Scheffey is no easy task. Former patients who had settled their suits had signed confidentiality agreements and couldn't speak out, he says. Others simply had no interest, either wanting to put their experience behind them or not wanting to make the effort. Santana sold the bus a few weeks ago.

More recently, he got further bad news. A Montgomery County jury rejected Santana's malpractice suit against Scheffey on May 19, finding no merit in claims that the doctor performed a string of unnecessary back surgeries on Santana's wife, Ruth, leaving her in constant pain.

But if Scheffey thinks his battles with Santana are over, he's wrong. The former fireman, now the wealthy owner of three funeral homes and other businesses, is pledging to do what other doctors and other patients failed to do: drive Scheffey out of the medical profession.

He's been knocking on doors, trying to convince reticent former patients to talk. He's been prowling around the courthouse, poring through the files of suits against Scheffey.

Some of his ideas are more off-the-wall: buying the building next to Scheffey's office and parking an 18-wheeler there whose sides would be covered by what he calls "know your doctor" information. Or hiring a "former CIA employee" to prove his allegations that Scheffey altered patient records in order to win his malpractice suit.

He's also appealing that verdict, saying the judge wouldn't allow crucial evidence to be presented.

He says he's spent maybe $100,000 so far in time and hiring attorneys and expert witnesses, and that he's prepared to spend $50,000 to $100,000 more.

"I told Scheffey I ain't going away," he says. "I told him I'm going to be a birthmark on his ass. You can try to laser it off, but a birthmark never goes away, and I ain't going away."

Although he's not talking to reporters, the 47-year-old Scheffey is probably resigned to the news that he has yet another Inspector Javert on his trail. Scheffey's medical career has been a constant battle against people who are convinced he shouldn't be working as a doctor.

His fights have been well documented, in the Houston Press, the Houston Chronicle, even on prime-time network newsmagazines. When he does give interviews, he says the claims against him stem from insurance companies that don't like the fact that he stands up for his patients.

He's been accused of performing unnecessary surgeries, of causing too much blood loss during operations (such that he's called "Eric the Red"), of prescribing heavy doses of prescription painkillers to keep patients coming back. Two physicians actually described him as a "threat to the public" during one emergency hearing to revoke his license. Most famously, he was arrested in 1985 for cocaine possession after he was found behaving erratically in a department store.

Through it all, Scheffey's practice, which consists largely of serving patients who are blue-collar workers from the refineries and chemical plants around Houston, has allowed him to live lavishly. Newspaper and magazine clips are filled with stories of $250,000 stereo systems, a fleet of cars that includes seven Ferraris and an extensive art collection.

He's fought hard to keep his practice alive, not only by vigorously defending himself in court and before the board of medical examiners but by attacking his critics. He's filed libel suits against publications (including the Press, whose then-owners settled for a confidential amount) and he won a $34 million slander suit against one insurance company he said had spread rumors he was a drug dealer. An appeals court later threw out the award.

After yet another tortuous legal battle, Scheffey is currently under five years' probation from the board of medical examiners. The board studied four cases where it found Scheffey had overcharged for unnecessary surgeries. The board voted 54 for probation, rejecting an administrative law judge's recommendation that Scheffey's medical license be revoked. The four voters in the minority wanted to take the license away.

That board vote came in May 1995, but the probation did not go into effect until last October, when the state Supreme Court ruled against Scheffey's appeal.

The probation order requires Scheffey to obtain a written consultation from a second doctor before performing any surgery, and to have an assisting physician present during any operation.

That probation wasn't in effect when Ruth Santana came under Scheffey's care in 1993. Then 48, she was active in her church and enjoyed skating and other sports.

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