I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired last year 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.
MY LATEST STORIES
Sherrod Brown Gets Back to Work
Passing on a run for president, the Ohio senator still has injected his “dignity of work” theme into the Democratic presidential race—which could make him an attractive VP choice.
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
Photo courtesy of Steve Bennish
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.
By Jim DeBrosse
Cincinnati Magazine, March 2019
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s decision last week to skip the 2020 Democratic presidential race took a lot of people by surprise, but not those who know him well or have studied his long political career. “I think he wanted to be president, but he wasn’t as driven as some candidates who say, ‘I absolutely have to have that at all costs,’ ” says Herb Asher, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University and a longtime observer of the Ohio and national political scenes. “He may have actually made a very sane decision to say, ‘The issues I care about, and my ability to take the stands I care about, are enhanced if I stay in the U.S. Senate.’ ”
After testing the crowded waters in four early primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—Brown’s message and what Asher calls his “authenticity” as a progressive populist were beginning to move the needle on his lack of national name recognition. (In December, 77 percent of national voters in a Quinnipiac University poll said they didn’t know enough about Brown to form an opinion.) But with more than 20 declared and likely Democratic candidates now in the running, “the chances for any individual candidate [breaking out of the pack] are low,” Asher says.
For his part, Brown says he had “as good a path to being president as anybody in that race. I still think that. But I just thought it was a better use of my time and my ambitions to stay in the Senate and fight there.”
What he’ll fight for in Washington, D.C.—and what could aid Democrats still in the race—is his theme of restoring the “dignity of work” across America. It’s a phrase Brown traces back to a groundbreaking encyclical on economic justice, Rerum Novarum, penned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and a potential campaign message that’s already been picked up by a number of presidential hopefuls like U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and surprise newcomer Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana.