by Judy Hodgson

Dr. Charles Dietl, the medical director of the St. Joseph Heart Institute until he was "terminated without cause" in November, has filed a $7.2 million lawsuit in federal court against the Sisters of Orange and St. Joseph Hospital charging libel, slander, wrongful termination and breach of contract. Also named in the lawsuit were a local cardiologist, an anesthesiologist and others.

Contacted by telephone in Buffalo, N.Y., where he currently practices cardio-thoracic surgery, Dietl said a recently released confidential report by the national Society of Thoracic Surgeons confirms what he has said all along.

"The report not only clears me from any wrongdoing but also shows that there are some serious concerns about another physician and the (St. Joseph Hospital) administration (about) how the whole (heart) program was handled," Dietl said.

"The community should have an interest in knowing what the STS (Society of Thoracic Surgeons) report said and what the hospital's actions will be as a result," he added.

Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Neil Martin refused to comment and referred calls to the hospital's public affairs office.

Hospital spokesperson Laurie Watson-Stone said, "The STS report is a confidential document, part of the peer review process. I can't comment on that and I can't comment on litigation issues either."

Watson-Stone said the reopening of the Heart Institute under the direction of Dr. Marshall Marchbanks of Santa Rosa is "full-steam ahead. We are still targeting July as a restart."

The St. Joseph Heart Institute was in operation just three months, May through July 1997, when it was closed because of concern over the number of deaths. Six of the 40 patients had died following surgery. Acting on an anonymous complaint, the state Department of Health Services investigated and found a number of deficiencies including the hospital's failure to have written guidelines and failure to set up and use peer review or a quality assurance evaluation process during the short tenure of the program.

In the lawsuit, Dietl, who is a heart surgeon and performed the operations, claims that after the deaths of two patients diagnosed and referred by Dr. Howard Feldman, a Eureka cardiologist, he asked former St. Joseph CEO Paul Chodkowski for an outside review of those cases.

"Nothing was ever done," Dietl said.

In August, after six years as CEO of St. Joseph, Chodkowski accepted a position in Schenectady, N.Y.

(Feldman, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment, citing patient and peer review confidentiality.)

"Dr. Dietl believes that there has been a cover-up of Dr. Feldman's errors and he (Dr. Dietl) has been made a scapegoat by his termination," said attorney Henry Kraft, who filed the lawsuit on Dietl's behalf in Los Angeles in December.

Dietl said he had an exemplary record at the Geisinger Institute in Pennsylvania prior to his recruitment by the Sisters of Orange in 1996. He sold his home and first moved to Apple Valley, Calif. to replace the cardiac surgeon at St. Mary's Hospital but later learned the surgeon declined to leave.

"I was very unhappy there because I was brought in to head the program," Dietl said. "Then all of a sudden comes this invitation to come to Eureka."

The lawsuit is against both hospitals. Motions are scheduled to be heard June 15 in Los Angeles. Attorney Kevin O'Donnell of San Francisco, representing St. Joseph Hospital, is asking to have the case transferred to San Francisco and that it be separated from the charges against St. Mary's.



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