MADISON – Was a former Marshfield Clinic neurosurgeon an overly aggressive practitioner whose zeal to heal resulted in unnecessary and risky surgeries, or did his colleagues’ professional jealousy force him out of a lucrative practice?
Federal jurors will be considering those opposing perspectives as they hear testimony this week in a breach of contract lawsuit brought by Dr. Jay Schindler, who contends the clinic fired him in December 2003 without adequate investigation or good cause.
Schindler, was a “Midwestern farm boy,” an Eagle Scout, valedictorian at Yale University, and trained at Mayo Clinic, before coming to Marshfield in August 2002 to specialize in spinal surgery, his attorney William Hinnant Jr. said.
Schindler quickly became a rising star in the neurosurgery department; taking patients other doctors declined and seeing his gross billings exceed those of most of his colleagues. Schindler’s highly complex cases were more likely to develop complications because of their pre-operative conditions, but he advised his patients of risks and they wrote him thanking him for his compassion and quality of care, Hinnant said.
Schindler began to get job offers from locations better suited to his family but by October 2003 Marshfield increased his salary to $724,840, an amount unprecedented for a new employee, Hinnant said. Dr. John Neal used Schindler’s raising salary to procured raises for other department members, Hinnant said.
Despite his success, Schindler ruffled some feathers among colleagues who didn’t think he was “team player,” said Hinnant. Schindler preferred to work at the better staffed and equipped Saint Joseph’s Hospital than clinic’s ambulatory surgery center.
“He put patient care above profits,” Hinnant said.
However, the clinic’s shareholders made the important employment decisions and when an instrument slipped, touched a patient’s spinal cord and caused an injury during a surgery Schindler was performing in December 2003, his privileges were summarily suspended pending an investigation by the Peer Review Committee.
The patient recovered and even drove 90 miles to continue to be treated by Schindler after he was dismissed and worked at a clinic in Eau Claire. However, after a 70-meeting hearing, the PRC recommended Schindler be terminated after an inadequate investigation, said Hinnant.
The clinic’s attorney, Donald Schott, presented a different picture of Schindler’s employment in his 45-minute opening statement, telling jurors that the safety of patients required Schindler’s dismissal.
After a patient’s spinal injury during Schindler’s December 2003 surgery, Dr. Paul Liss, Marshfield’s chief medical officer, gathered three other case files that generated concern about whether surgery was appropriate for four patients Schindler operated on, Schott said.
The files showed that two patients sustained extensive blood loss, one was equal to twice their entire blood volume, which Schott said occurs during some surgeries but also carries the risk of the patient “bleeding out,” due to lack of blood clotting.
“These were complicated multi-level surgeries … one required two surgeons and 13 hours,” he said.
One patient had back pain for months after the surgery; another required two additional surgeries, Schott said.
When asked by the PRC if he would have done anything different, Schindler replied, no, said Schott.
“The committee was most concerned with the four cases in 18 months that didn’t go well and when Schindler offered no indication of doing anything different given the opportunity they were concerned about the possibility of having another four cases, which is why they let him go,” Schott said.
The clinic’s executive committee and board of directors agreed with the PRC’s recommendation, Schott said.
Schindler is practicing in South Dakota and earns nearly the salary he had at Marshfield, making the trial “not about money but pride, self respect and principle,” said Hinnant.
The trial is expected to last a week.
By Kevin Murphy
For the Marshfield News-Herald