The Times-Union interviewed seven former patients of Dr. Richard David Heekin following lawsuits filed on behalf of 511 people who said Heekin made mistakes related to their surgeries and in some cases, their spouses.
Here are some of those patients’ stories, including details from their lawsuits and how their lives have changed since the operation.
Times-Union investigation: Patients, colleagues complained about orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent’s. Why didn’t the surgeries stop sooner?
How We Did It: An investigation into an orthopedic surgeon that lawsuits claim left some patients permanently injured
Lives in: Baldwin
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Left knee surgery on June 17, 2019.
According to the complaint filed, the surgery attempted to fix aseptic loosening, the failure of the bond between the bone and an implant, rotation of the prosthetic knee, and an unstable MCL after the surgery. She said she woke up with numbness, then unbearable pain.
Concerns about Heekin: Brown had known Heekin for about 30 years, but in her final dealings with him, she said she noticed things she hadn’t before: he was slurring words so badly she and her husband couldn’t understand him, and she saw his hands shaking. She said when she asked him about it, he mentioned a “little neurological problem” and that he would be alright.
What she said happened after the surgery: After the surgery, Heekin did not treat Brown for a “possible patellar tendon avulsion or infection,” according to the lawsuit. Brown says she now can’t walk without assistance, and she lives with pain. Last year, she fell while cooking in the kitchen and had to sit for over an hour in burning oil because her husband, a disabled military veteran, couldn’t help her up, she says.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on May 28, 2021. Currently open. On March 30, 2022, lawyers for St. Vincent’s hospital filed a proposal for settlement for Alvin Brown, Abrigail’s husband. Alvin is suing for the loss of Abrigail’s “companionship” and “loss of support and money in kind.” No proposal for settlement has been filed for Abrigail. Lawyers for the hospital filed to dismiss three of the counts: that St. Vincent’s and Heekin’s clinic were in a joint venture, that St. Vincent’s was “careless” and “negligent” in Abrigail’s care and that St. Vincent’s was “negligent” by allowing Heekin to continue operating. Lawyers for Heekin and his clinic filed to dismiss two counts which allege that Heekin’s clinic and St. Vincent’s were in a joint venture so both are liable and that Alvin should also be compensated. Lawyers for Heekin say that there are “threadbare” claims that Heekin’s clinic and St. Vincent’s were in a joint venture. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on any of the motions to dismiss.
Lives in: Northwest Jacksonville
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Total right knee replacement on January 28, 2020.
Ana Harrell has scars on both of her knees — the left knee is thin, white and straight with a slight curve. But the right knee has jagged lines, Harrell says.
Both surgeries on her knees were done by Heekin, although years apart. Her left knee was done “beautifully” in 2014, Harrell says, so it was a no-brainer for her to return to Heekin for her right leg in January 2020.
But for the second knee, according to the lawsuit, Heekin recommended a total right knee replacement despite Harrell’s poor bone strength.
According to the lawsuit, Heekin injured a nerve in her leg during surgery.
Concerns about Heekin: Both Harrell and her husband say they noticed Heekin seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech on the day of her second surgery. After her surgery, Harrell says she only saw Heekin one more time before she said the hospital told her there was a “conflict of interest” and she could no longer be Heekin’s patient.
Both asked nurses the day of the surgery whether Heekin was ok, and they were told both times that he was fine, so neither decided to complain to the hospital, they say. They figured the nurses would have run the complaints up the chain of command.
What she said happened after the surgery: When Harrell woke up, her right foot had turned inward and was extremely painful. She also struggled with repeat infections at the surgery site, she says. She hasn’t had the same mobility since. She used to work as a seamstress and build porches for her neighbors. Now she stays mostly inside with little ability to move, Harrell says.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on Nov. 17, 2021 and is currently open. On Feb. 22, 2022, lawyers for St. Vincent’s filed proposals for settlement to both Ana and her husband, Thomas Harrell. Lawyers for Heekin and his clinic filed a motion to dismiss two counts of the lawsuit. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on any of the motions to dismiss.
Lives in: West Jacksonville
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Total left knee replacement on Jan. 6, 2020.
Darryl Pridgen had a career as a dock supervisor at a trucking company until the pain in his left knee wouldn’t subside. His wife looked up orthopedic surgeons and saw that Heekin came highly recommended.
Concerns about Heekin: Pridgen said he had his doubts at his first consultation with Heekin when he noticed the doctor’s hands shaking.
“I said, ‘Are you going to be operating on me?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’” Pridgen told the Times-Union. “I had my little doubts, I guess, and I came home and I told my wife ‘He’s not all there.'”
Cindy Pridgen, Pridgen’s wife, said she first met Heekin after he came out of the operating room following her husband’s first surgery.
“He is shaking and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, he sounds like he’s drunk because I couldn’t understand nothing he said,’” Cindy said. “A little bit later, one of his nurses came out and told me that I can go to the room and I asked her, ‘Has Heekin had a stroke or something?’ And she said, ‘No, he’s always talked like that.’”
What he said happened after the surgery: While at physical therapy not long after the surgery, Pridgen says he felt a pop in his left knee and the wound started draining, according to the lawsuit. He then developed a rash and a deep prosthetic joint infection from the surgery, according to the lawsuit. Pridgen’s lawsuit alleges a series of missteps by Heekin: prescribing several antibiotics that did nothing to heal the underlying infection and second revision surgery in April 2020 that did not fix the problems.
Pridgen went to a different orthopedic surgeon and had to have a third surgery: a total revision knee arthroplasty, according to the lawsuit.
Pridgen permanently lost his job after the surgery and the couple had to sell their home and move in with their daughter.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on May 28, 2021 and is currently open. In June 2021, lawyers for the hospital filed a motion to dismiss three counts and lawyers for Heekin tried to dismiss two. On Feb. 23, 2022, St. Vincent’s filed proposals for settlement to both Darryl and his wife, Cindy. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on any of the motions to dismiss.
Lives in: North Jacksonville
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Total right hip revision surgery on Aug. 13, 2019.
Susan, who asked that her last name not be published for privacy reasons, had a lift hip operation by Heekin in 2016, and Susan says she experienced no problems. In November 2017, Heekin did another procedure on Susan to replace the polyethylene component in the hip, according to the lawsuit.
But it’s the surgery in 2019 that Susan said changed her life forever.
Heekin recommended a right hip revision surgery, even though “there was no reasonable justification for this surgery,” Susan’s lawsuit claims. During that surgery, Heekin removed the acetabular component and replaced it, but put the new component inside the pelvis “grossly malpositioned” with a screw that stuck into her muscle, according to the lawsuit.
The front and middle parts of Susan’s pelvis were also either removed or damaged, the lawsuit said.
What she said happened after the surgery: Since August 2019, Susan said she has been on a daily diet of both hydrocodone and morphine, she can’t sit or lay comfortably, and movement is limited, she says. Susan and her husband had to spend thousands of dollars to renovate their bathroom to be accessible for her, they told the Times-Union.
During follow-up appointments, Susan and her husband asked why there was a screw in her hip and why the hips were misaligned.
They say Heekin dismissed their concerns, so Susan sought a second opinion. She eventually had revision surgery and bone grafts, according to the lawsuit, because the anterior and medial walls of her pelvis had been removed or damaged.
“At this stage now, I don’t know what the future holds for me,” Susan said.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on July 1, 2021 and is currently open. In July 2021, lawyers for the hospital filed a motion to dismiss four counts and lawyers for Heekin tried to dismiss two. On March 30, 2022, St. Vincent’s filed proposals for settlement to both Susan and her husband. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on any of the motions to dismiss.
Lives in: Orlando
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Total left knee replacement on March 11, 2019.
At 64 years old, Sandra Coburn was experiencing pain in her left knee and continuously falling. So she went to Heekin.
According to the lawsuit filed on her behalf, Heekin “caused multiple significant and unexpected permanent injuries” that can only be explained by “his impairment.” The injury is described as a “technical surgical error” but the cause of it is redacted in court documents.
Concerns about Heekin: Although she continued to see Heekin through the summer of 2019 after her first surgery, she never got any better, was still falling and in constant pain, she says. The last time she saw Heekin was in August 2019, she says.
“He was slurring his words so badly that neither my daughter nor I could understand what he was saying. We kept asking him to repeat himself and we couldn’t make sense of anything he was saying,” Coburn said. “When we walked out of that appointment, I looked at my daughter and I said, ‘I think he was on something,’ and my daughter said ‘No, I think he’s had a stroke.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what it was, but that’s why I’m not going back there.’”
What she said happened after the surgery: Coburn still had pain after the first surgery, so she went in for a revision with Heekin in April 2019.
“After that surgery…I continued to fall after I got home from rehab,” Coburn said of her first surgery with him. ”I went back to Dr. Heekin and he said that he had put the wrong size knee in and that he needed to go back in and switch it out.”
The lawsuit says he tried to correct his mistakes from the first operation but instead made her “left lower extremity” considerably longer than her right during the revision surgery.
When she woke up from the second surgery, the toes of her left foot were pointed toward the arch of her right foot and she then developed an infection in her knee, according to personal statements by Coburn and her lawsuit.
She eventually turned to a different doctor and completed another surgery on her left leg, she says.
“Hoping and praying that that was my last surgery,” Coburn said.
She said her life is a shell of what it once was. She can no longer play tennis or golf and she can’t go upstairs to the second floor of her house.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on Dec. 13, 2021 and is currently open. On Jan. 18, 2022, lawyers for Heekin and his clinic filed a motion to dismiss one count of the lawsuit. A judge has not ruled on that motion yet. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on the motion to dismiss.
Age: 70 (at death)
Lives in: Orange Park
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit: Removal of hardware and conversion to left total hip replacement on Sept. 24, 2018.
Anthony Bonk and his wife, Lucinda, married in 1977 and eventually bought a large home on the St. Johns River to enjoy retirement.
In 2018, Lucinda fell and broke her left leg and doctors at Mayo Clinic inserted a rod into her leg, Bonk says. She was in a lot of pain and couldn’t walk without assistance.
Bonk contacted Heekin.
During the surgery, Heekin cracked Lucinda’s left femur, according to the lawsuit. Also during the surgery, the anesthesia machine wasn’t working properly and was not recording a “significant number” of Lucinda’s vitals, the lawsuit claims.
During the surgery, Lucinda’s heart rate slowed and her blood pressure dropped, and she died, according to the lawsuit.
The cause of death for Lucinda listed on her death certificate: complications from a femur fracture, according to the lawsuit.
Concerns about Heekin: “In that very first meeting that we had with him, we had a million questions because we had never met him before and at one point in it, he turned to Lucinda and he said, ‘Would you just shut up?’” Bonk told the Times-Union. “Both of us were startled and kind of handled it with kid gloves as he was telling us how great he was and where it was going to go from there.”
What she said happened after the surgery: Lucinda went in for the surgery they were told would take around an hour and a half, Bonk says.
After three hours, a nurse told him his wife was “struggling.” Two hours later, a nurse told him his wife had “coded” twice on the operating table and was being taken to the intensive care unit, Bonk says. He said as she was wheeled past him, he saw someone on top of her “pumping her trying to bring her back, apparently to life.”
Bonk said he was told his wife was essentially brain dead. But Lucinda had a do not resuscitate order. Lucinda was given her last rites.
For the following few years, Bonk tried to grieve and move on. It wasn’t until he met his new partner, who had a career in the medical field, that he started to question what happened to his wife.
Bonk began the search for a lawyer, and eventually joined hundreds of others in filing a lawsuit against Heekin and St. Vincent’s.
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on July 7, 2021 and is currently open. Lawyers for Heekin and his clinic have filed a motion to dismiss one count and to strike Bonk’s amended complaint from the case. Lawyers for St. Vincent’s filed a motion to dismiss four of the counts filed in the lawsuit. The docket doesn’t indicate whether the judge has ruled on the motion to dismiss.
Lives in: Jacksonville
Surgery that’s subject of lawsuit:
Total left knee replacement on Nov. 18, 2019.
Roberta Musto’s surgery is ground zero for the hundreds of lawsuits that followed. She and her husband were the first to reach out to the lawyers at Freedland Harwin Valori.
During the surgery, Heekin ruptured the patella tendon and tried to repair it, according to the lawsuit. But Heekin did not list the rupture as a complication in his operative notes, did not properly reattach the patella tendon and identified the wrong knee as being operated on in his notes, the lawsuit claims.
Concerns about Heekin: Immediately after the surgery, Heekin went to talk to Roberta’s husband, Larry. That’s when Larry noticed that Heekin had “gait problems, appearing unsteady on his feet and the need to hold on to the furniture and the walls in order to balance himself and remain standing.” Heekin was also slurring his speech, Larry said.
What she said happened after the surgery: When Musto left the hospital two days later, the wound was still bleeding, her leg was discolored and she was in extreme pain, the couple said. Larry tried to tell the staff at St. Vincent’s that she wasn’t ready to go home.
When they got home, Larry called 911. Roberta was taken to Baptist Hospital and then readmitted to St. Vincent’s on Nov. 21. She was then in Brooks Rehabilitation Center from Nov. 25 to Dec. 7, according to her lawsuit.
During that time, no one realized her patella tendon was not properly repaired, the lawsuit says.
Musto has since had another surgeon perform revision surgery, but she still can’t fully use her leg, she said, according to the lawsuit.
“I’ve known her [Roberta] since high school,” Larry said. “It just tears me up to see her like that … We exist here at home, can’t go out, have dinner or anything. We can’t shop, we can’t go motorcycle riding, we can’t travel in our retirement.”
Response from defendants and status of lawsuit: Filed on Oct. 22, 2020. and is currently open. Lawyers for St. Vincent’s attempted to dismiss four separate claims in Musto’s lawsuit but the judge denied the motions to dismiss. Musto has since settled with Heekin and his clinic out of court for an undisclosed amount and dropped the claims against them from the lawsuit. The suit against the hospital continues.
Katherine Lewin is the enterprise reporter at the Times-Union covering criminal and social justice issues in Northeast Florida. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @KatherineMLewin. Contact her for her Signal number to share anonymous tips and documents. Support local journalism!