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.

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.

"I just want a judgment against him. I don't care if it's for a dollar. I don't know how much we're suing for and I don't care. I just want a judgment. I want his license."

Freeman may not have better luck than the Santanas when she gets to court. As the Santanas' trial showed, Scheffey's litigious history has made him an effective witness on the stand: He talks directly to jurors and effortlessly demonstrates the charm that former patients say caused them to trust him.

"Dr. Scheffey is a handsome man, he speaks well, he's very articulate," Jack Urquhardt, the Santanas' attorney, told jurors in final arguments. "We all heard him say, 'I had a hard time (with cocaine), I hurt a lot of people, but I believe in redemption.' "

Noe Santana and his son, J.R., bridled as Scheffey testified, talking at length about the risks involved in back surgery.

"If he had explained to my mother prior to the surgeries the risks involved half as well as he did with the jury, she would not have had the surgery," J.R. says. "No reasonable person would. He spent an hour explaining all the risks to them, walking around the courtroom with a model spine. He doesn't even have one of those in his office."

The jury no doubt depended on more than Scheffey's charm to find in his favor. His lawyers produced patient records that showed he had sufficiently briefed Ruth on the risks, and had handled the case properly. (It's these documents that have Noe talking about hiring an expert on detecting altered records.)

Santana says he'll appeal the verdict, pointing to documents not allowed into evidence that, he says, show Scheffey's negligence.

"We knew the verdict was coming because of the evidence the judge didn't let in," he says. "We are appealing, and that's good because it lets me get more of the trash out and to play with the man. Evidently most people don't know me. I got a lot of determination."

Even if he loses his appeal, Santana says he'll keep Scheffey in his sights. If he can't get relief from the board of medical examiners, he says, he'll just push to make Scheffey's record known to prospective patients.

"They wanted to settle [the malpractice suit], but they wanted us to sign a confidentiality agreement," he says. "I wouldn't do it, because I know I'm not going to keep my mouth shut.... If you sell your rights to say what this person is, how are you going to be able to look at yourself in the mirror?"

"He hurt the wrong person," says J.R. "I'm sorry it has to be my mother who got hurt, but my parents have the resolve and the determination to see this through. They were not the least bit tempted by the settlement, because of the confidentiality agreement."

"Realistically, how many people can afford to go up against a bastard like this?" Noe says. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of money."

He predicts that Scheffey will soon face a new wave of malpractice suits. He also says he won't be deterred by the jury verdict against him.

"My resolve, my determination, my get-up-and-go has probably doubled since the verdict," he says. "There's a thousand things I'm thinking of and new stuff that's coming up all the time."

Apparently he's not concerned that the ever-litigious Scheffey might sue him for his activities.

"They've already accused me of going out to his waiting area and hustling patients," he says. "But I don't have to do that."

He says that after the malpractice verdict was announced -- a mere two hours after the jury got the case -- he shook Scheffey's hand. While he's not really clear on why ("I don't have any hard feelings; it's a matter of principle"), he is clear on another thing.

"They know we'll be back," he said after the verdict. Before he learned the outcome, it was evident that even had he won, he wouldn't have been satisfied.

"I'm going to jack with this guy until the day I die," he said.

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