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.

She experienced persistent pain in her neck; because their family physician was ill, the Santanas went to another doctor who referred them to Scheffey. Over a period of 18 months, Scheffey operated on Ruth's back three times.

Now, she says she can only move with the assistance of a walker, and that she needs injections of Demerol perhaps twice a week to handle the pain.

"I was super-active, and after he got a hold of me, little by little I just went down," she says. "I've gained 60 pounds off the medicines. I used to be a nurse before we went into business and I was always against using narcotics on patients, but now I take them or I won't get up in the morning."

Noe Santana says he's gone through periods where he was all but convinced his wife of 37 years would commit suicide. He says her pain was almost unbearable after one of the operations.

"I went into the hospital room and she just said, 'Let me die,' " he says. "I didn't know what to do. She was just in pain over what she had become. I went and bought the best gowns, and Oscar de la Renta perfume and all that, brought them to the hospital room to try and show her that I loved her and was staying with her."

Santana's gruffly expressed love for his wife is evident and affecting. During final arguments at the malpractice trial, Scheffey's lawyer admitted to jurors that "I have nothing bad to say about Noe Santana," although he argued that Noe had "improperly recalled" events during his emotional testimony.

"He's angry about this situation," attorney David Mathiessen told jurors. "But let's assess his credibility, not because he's lying, but because he's biased.... They're saying all these things, and they believe them, but they are wrong."

Mathiessen was right, at least, about Noe's anger. For the past four years he's been directing that anger at Scheffey.

Santana began tracking down the dozens of former patients who had sued Scheffey, knocking on doors and trying to get them to tell their stories. He found that those who had settled their cases -- Scheffey testified about five years ago that he had settled 20 of 36 malpractice suits filed against him up to that point -- had signed confidentiality agreements barring them from discussing their suits.

"Some of these people, they don't want to talk," he says. "They don't know if it's someone from Scheffey's side jacking with them. They're gun-shy."

Santana kept plugging away. Even though he's in the usually genteel funeral-home business (it's his name that's prominently displayed on the blanket used to cover many of the murder victims who star on the local TV news), Santana is more of a scrapper than a retiring type.

He was a Houston firefighter for eight years until an injury ended that career. He began investing in real estate, then moved on to the rough-and-tumble bail-bond industry, then opened an insurance agency. All three companies are still operating.

In 1989, the insurance business led him to the unlikely decision to operate a funeral parlor.

"I saw a family that I was involved with who couldn't get a funeral without paying for it up front, so I said to hell with this," he says. For $30,000 he purchased a funeral home from an acquaintance; now he owns three of them.

He says he regularly worked 16-hour days six days a week to keep his various enterprises running successfully. Whatever he did, it worked: He and his wife live in a pleasant home in Clear Lake City filled with the kind of knickknacks purchased by people with plenty of discretionary spending money on hand.

It was a nice enough life, until Ruth began experiencing neck pains. From that point on, Noe Santana's world has been one of courthouses, attorneys and tracking down former Scheffey patients.

Once the Santanas' malpractice trial began in May, with coverage from two TV stations, the job of tracking former patients got easier. He says his phone lit up with calls from people who had been operated on by Scheffey. He says he even got a call from someone who had surgery scheduled with Scheffey in the next few days.

"One guy, he waited six hours in the funeral home while I was in Conroe just because he really needed to tell his story," Santana says. "It's just amazing, what some of these people are going through."

One of the persons who called Santana is Frances Freeman of the East Texas town of Batson, whose father died in 1994, the day after Scheffey operated on him. She claims her father, an insulin-dependent 65-year-old diabetic, didn't need the seven-hour operation in which he lost four quarts of blood.

Her malpractice suit against Scheffey was delayed by the start of the Santanas' trial.

She traveled to Conroe almost every day of the Santanas' two-week-long trial. "This is the first good news I've had in three years, just to be with someone who knows what I'm going through," says Freeman, who works at a Sam's Warehouse store. "He [Scheffey] took something from me he never should have, and I've had three years of the Texas medical board saying, 'Let us do our jobs' and talking about problems with staffing and funding.

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