I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Currently, I'm the Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and encouraging civic engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where I volunteer as a tutor at Rothenberg Academy.
MY LATEST STORIES
Photo courtesy of Steve Bennish
By Jim DeBrosse
Cincinnati Magazine, May 2020
A Surgeon's Victims Waiting for Justice
Six years after a local spine surgeon fled the country to avoid criminal prosecution, his victims and their families fight for their day in court.
By Jim DeBrosse
Cincinnati Magazine, October 2019
The last thing Tim Walker and his then–12-year-old daughter Carolyn expected that evening when they began rolling their trash bins into the driveway of their Bethel home was to become overnight internet sensations. But it all happened in a flash—more precisely, a series of 13 bright red-and-orange flashes filling a broad swath of the southwest sky on Sunday, January 12.
The event was captured on less than 20 seconds of video by the family’s garage door security cam and promptly posted by Walker to Facebook. Within a few weeks, his post of the still-unexplained light show had been viewed nearly 70,000 times by users as far away as China and garnered 139 comments and 256 shares. It also drew an offer from licensing company Viral Hog to represent Walker in sharing the video with other media outlets.
“It’s kind of crazy how big it’s gotten,” says the 45-year-old Bethel native, who’s an IT consultant and teacher. In addition to local TV coverage, the story was picked up by the Drudge Report and newspapers in Lexington, Kentucky; Charlotte, North Carolina; the United Kingdom; and Germany—not to mention dozens of websites devoted to UFOs and other mysterious sightings. And it all happened to someone who says he normally “just posts funny dog and funny cat pictures because my daughter loves them” and gets about one or two Facebook notifications a day.
For several days after posting the video, Walker says, “Every five minutes somebody shared it or commented on it.” Carolyn, of course, became an instant mini-celebrity at Bethel-Tate Middle School for her local TV interviews. Her seventh-grade STEM teacher showed the video for class discussion. Their conclusion? “They just say it’s aliens now,” Carolyn says.
Holly DeCair, a recently widowed mother of two teenagers, was desperate to find relief from lower back pain caused by an inherited condition known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. EDS weakens the body’s connective tissues, impacting the discs that cushion vertebrae in the spine. The 41-year-old Maumee, Ohio, native consulted with surgeons in Toledo and Cleveland, both of whom recommended she lose weight and try physical therapy before exposing herself to the risks of spinal surgery.
In 2009, DeCair learned of a clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) that specialized in the treatment of EDS for both children and adults. A doctor there referred her to local surgeon Abubakar Atiq Durrani, M.D., whose aggressive and often experimental surgeries had been questioned and criticized by other surgeons at CCHMC. In fact, Durrani had left CCHMC earlier that year under a cloud of complaints about his professional and personal conduct that were never communicated to his patients or other hospitals. He assured DeCair that “he could take care of her. It would just be a normal surgery, and it was no big deal,” recalls her sister, Jodi Behrendt.
DeCair’s surgery was one of 10 that Durrani performed that day in August 2009 at The Christ Hospital, Behrendt says, and it was anything but routine or standard. His plan was to fuse together the lower vertebrae of DeCair’s spine with a costly and controversial bone grafting material called BMP-2 that he’d used on hundreds of his patients without their consent.
To hold the spine in place while the bones grew together, Durrani inserted screws through them. But the first screw was too long and pierced the iliac artery that runs along the front of the spinal column. He removed the screw, quickly tried to patch the cut, and inserted a shorter one. But with the artery still bleeding out, Durrani sewed up DeCair and went out to the waiting room to tell her family that the surgery had been a success.
In the recovery room, though, DeCair was struggling for life. Her heart stopped from loss of blood, and she was rushed back to surgery, this time under the care of a vascular surgeon who made a heroic effort to stop the bleeding. But after a total of 64 blood transfusions—replacing all the blood in DeCair’s body—her heart gave out and she died. Her children no longer had a father or a mother.
“I understand the risks of surgery and that things do happen,” says Behrendt, who is a surgical nurse in Toledo. “But with [Durrani] it was not a one-time thing. If you look at the number of people he operated on and the number of people he maimed and killed, it’s huge.”
From 2005 until he fled to his native Pakistan in 2013 to avoid criminal charges of health care fraud, Durrani performed an estimated 4,000 surgeries at CCHMC, UC West Chester, Christ, and Good Samaritan hospitals as well as Dayton’s Riverview Health Institute, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue. But hundreds of the surgeries are alleged to have been unnecessary and many were botched, leading in some cases to death and at least four instances of paralysis, according to court depositions.
And even though colleagues and nurses began raising concerns about Durrani’s practices as early as 2006, the long line of unsuspecting patients he operated on—as many as 11 per day as he rotated through multiple operating rooms—were never warned. Court testimony alleges that, at times, Durrani would leave two or three surgeries in the hands of unsupervised residents while he retreated to his office with his physician assistant, with whom he was having an affair.
Durrani’s story uncovers a dark underbelly of today’s U.S. health care system, which often protects physicians and hospitals over patients, rewards aggressive treatment over successful outcomes, allows medical device companies to hire doctors who use their products, and encourages hospitals to look more closely at their bottom line than the competence of the doctors they hire and supervise. It also intersects with an Ohio court system that’s vulnerable to outside money and influence.