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Accused Navy Surgeon Operated Beyond His Capabilities, Witness Says

February 11, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An anesthesiologist who worked with Navy surgeon Donal Billig testified Tuesday that he believed the surgeon was attempting heart operations beyond his capabilities while at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Dr. Theodore Heyneker took the stand as a witness for the defense in Billig’s military court-martial as Billig’s attorneys sought to show that patients who died during heart surgery by the doctor were high-risk cases with advanced heart disease.

But Heyneker, a lieutenant commander, served to underscore a point of the prosecution - that Billig performed surgery for which he was not competent.

Under cross-examination, assistant prosecutor Lt. Cmdr Joseph G. VanWinkle asked Heyneker, ″Was it your opinion, was the accused pushed beyond his capabilities in coronary cases?″

Heyneker: ″Yes.″

Q. ″Was he a victim of the Peter Principle?″

A. ″Yes.″

VanWinkle asked if Billig tended to lift the heart without warning in surgery, at times that would do damage by denying the organ oxygen. ″Yes,″ Heyneker answered.

Heyneker is a staff anesthesiologist at Bethesda who controlled the anesthesia during many operations with Billig, including some for which Billig now faces charges.

Billig, who is scheduled to testify in his own defense Wednesday, faces five charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of patients during or following surgery by him. He also faces 24 counts of dereliction of duty stemming from other operations.

Heyneker was asked about two cases in which Billig is charged and said that that retired Gunner’s Mate Joe Estep was a high-risk patient whose surgery was performed in acceptable time. The government charges his death five days after surgery was due to poor surgical procedures, and Heyneker acknowledged poor procedures could have caused death.

An operation on retired Army Maj. William F. Grubb went ″exceptionally well,″ Heyneker said, adding that he reacted with disbelief when Grubb died a few hours after surgery. He said Billig’s reaction was appropriate when problems arose in surgery.

Also testifying was Dr. William P. Baker, former chief cardiologist, or heart specialist, at Bethesda. He said he was not made aware of any concerns other doctors had about Billig until he left that hospital.

VanWinkle asked Baker if he would have been comfortable referring cases to Billig had he known Billig had ″lied about his eyes,″ been fired from his last two jobs and been the object of complaints or warnings by four other surgeons. ″No,″ the defense witness said.

Billig’s former supervisor at Bethesda, Dr. John R. Fletcher, said he did not recall other doctors expressing significant concerns about Billig’s surgical ability. Fletcher, former chief of surgery at Bethesda, said he regarded any concerns he heard to be ″not substantive.″

″Had I been presented with those kind of concerns I certainly would have investigated it and may have prevented Dr. Billig from caring for patients,″ Fletcher said.

On cross-examination, however, Fletcher repeatedly said he couldn’t recall details of conversations with other doctors who have previously testified that they voiced concerns and warnings to him and others about Billig’s abilities.

Fletcher, a captain, received a letter of censure for his role in the Billig case last year and resigned from the Navy. He now heads surgery at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital.

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