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William Heisel's Antidote: Investigating Untold Health Stories

William Heisel, former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writes about investigative health reporting. He is currently the director of global engagement at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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In the first of my “Making Hepatitis History” series of posts, I wrote about the Southern Nevada Health District’s Public Health Investigation Report about the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, the epicenter of the worst hepatitis C outbreak ever to hit the US.

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So convoluted was Dr. Mark B. Kabins’ scheme to scam a patient he injured that you might need a whiteboard and several differently colored markers to make sense of it.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Melodie Simon underwent a spine surgery by Kabins, an orthopedic surgeon, in 2000. It went badly, and Simon ended up paralyzed.

According to the FBI, Kabins “knew that experts could say that he fell below the standard of care in his treatment of Simon, and that he could be sued.”

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You might be alarmed at what you find in the bankruptcy records for a medical company or a physician. Here are a few things that have alarmed me.

  • Patient records, with birth dates and social security numbers.
  • Charts showing detailed histories of visits, procedures and lab workups over decades.
  • Pathology lab reports.

Why would you find all these things mixed in with more mundane financial records showing the sums various people are owed?

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One of my first investigative stories as a reporter started with a call from a doctor who was worried about the sterilization practices at his hospital.

I started calling people at the hospital to try to answer some basic questions about what they were doing to make sure that surgical equipment was clean between procedures. “Why don’t I just come down and take a look at your process?” I suggested.

And that’s how I saw the sterilization logs.

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When a patient has a pain problem, he can seek a doctor who has experience in treating pain through a variety of measures that don’t rely solely on addictive prescription drugs.

Or he can find a doctor who acts like a Pez dispenser.

Dr. Daniel M. Howell was a Pez dispenser.

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Unless someone has had a bad experience with an insurance company, most people think of insurers as either benign or positive forces in their lives. It’s the president from “24” telling us in a deep, reassuring voice that we’ll be taken care of.

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UPDATE: Rutland will be allowed to continue practicing but cannot perform surgeries or deliveries after a judge's Jan. 7 decision. Here's the Orange County Register story.

 

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Dr. Earl Bradley had rooms in his pediatric practice decorated with Disney characters. Standard issue for the field.

He also had a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, which might be pushing the boundaries of childlike enthusiasm.

What made Bradley truly unusual, though, were the six handheld video cameras he kept. He used them, police say, to film himself molesting patients. They suspect he may have victimized more than 100 children, often bringing them into the basement of his office where he gave them toys to play with but also terrorized them.

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Hepatitis C tore through Las Vegas in February 2008, prompting health officials to call for 40,000 people to be tested for the disease. With estimates of more than 100 cases stemming from the outbreak and possibly thousands of infections that went unreported, it was later declared the largest Hepatitis C outbreak in US history, putting more people at risk than all previous outbreaks combined.

 

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Dr. F.D. Toms, a New Jersey doctor, found himself in a bind.

Rumors had been running around town that he had been sleeping with another man’s wife. The spurned husband, William Smith, showed up at the doctor’s office demanding to see him.

Toms panicked. Seeing Smith charging at him, Toms grabbed a container of sulphuric acid and threw it in Smith’s face. Toms said later that he thought he had grabbed a bottle of ammonia.

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