Hard to Stomach

A penalized doctor blames a medical giant for botched weight-loss surgeries

Since January, Kaye Parsley has lost 40 pounds, thousands of dollars in wages and much of her short-term memory. Only the weight loss was desired.

After struggling with obesity for most of her life, Parsley, a single mother who lives in Magnolia, had her stomach stapled in July 2002. The surgery, performed by a Houston surgeon in Lubbock's Highland Medical Center, nearly killed her.

The doctor, Ramesh Srungaram, operated on three women in the same two-day period he saw Parsley. All had to be rushed to another hospital for emergency surgeries, and one died (see "A Figure to Die For," January 2).

Parsley had surgery to lose weight -- and almost lost 
her life.
Troy Fields
Parsley had surgery to lose weight -- and almost lost her life.
As seen in the January 2, 2003, issue
As seen in the January 2, 2003, issue

After more than a year of investigation by the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, Srungaram was placed on probation for seven and a half years, fined $25,000 and ordered to perform his next 100 bariatric surgeries under the supervision of a board-certified surgeon. Srungaram must also pay that surgeon's expenses.

The medical board said Srungaram failed to "practice medicine in an acceptable professional manner consistent with public health and welfare."

Parsley and more than a dozen other former patients sued the doctor and Community Health Systems, which owns Highland and about 70 other hospitals.

Richard Mithoff, who represents Parsley and 16 other patients, claims that CHS used an online referral company to lure vulnerable people to underequipped hospitals, rush them through surgeries and overbill them and their insurance companies.

Parsley's insurance has covered most of the $300,000 she was socked with -- including both CHS's bills and the emergency surgery performed after Srungaram apparently botched her initial operation.

Parsley, who is just shy of five foot eight, has continued to lose weight since the surgery -- she's down to 180 pounds from a presurgery 300 -- but she complains of adverse side effects. She says she's experienced short-term memory loss since taking the experimental drugs that helped save her life. She says she became so forgetful that she had to quit a well-paying job at a large oil company and start temping as a secretary.

"My mom says sometimes…'I worry about you…I tell you things and you act like you've never heard me say that to you before,' " Parsley says. "I need more time for my mind to get right."

While representatives for Srungaram and CHS would not comment for this story, the doctor gave a deposition in August that shed some light on his dealings with the corporate giant.

Srungaram testified that he got to know higher-ups in CHS and their online referral program, COMPASS, at a bariatric surgery conference in Las Vegas. They recruited him to perform the expensive procedures at their new clinics in Lubbock and Cleveland, Texas, Srungaram testified.

When he returned from Las Vegas, he said, he applied for surgical privileges at Cleveland Regional Medical Center. CHS was so eager to get him started at Highland in Lubbock that they faxed the application from Cleveland to Highland CEO John Brock, who signed off on it the next day, Srungaram testified. Typically, a hospital's medical staff reviews applications before privileges are granted.

Brock, now an administrator at a non-CHS hospital, would not comment.

In the deposition, Srungaram said he found out that COMPASS wanted him to operate on only patients insured through PPOs, which pay more to the hospital than HMOs. He said he was also surprised to learn that COMPASS paired him with patients who weren't properly screened.

"They're just trying to lure the patients," Srungaram testified. "You cannot just tell them, 'Come here, have surgery, you're going to lose weight,' " he said. "When I saw these patients, when I was talking to them, I know by questioning them they know very little. Some of them didn't even know who their surgeon going to be [sic]."

Srungaram's testimony was backed by the findings of the medical board, which stated that his files held no evidence of preoperation physical examinations for some patients.

CHS severed ties with Srungaram after the botched surgeries, but he maintains a private practice in the Houston area and has surgical privileges at Houston Community Hospital. He has filed for bankruptcy, and 17 plaintiffs are waiting to get their portion of Srungaram's $600,000 insurance policy, according to Mithoff.

But they'll have to wait before they get their day in court -- the attorneys are still in the evidence-gathering phase of the case.

Meanwhile, Kaye Parsley says, "I'm not consumed with [the surgery] anymore. I just live my life day to day…I'm just going forward with me and my son."

 
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