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Cardiac surgeon at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg placed on leave

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The heart surgery program at Mary Washington Hospital suffered a setback this month when its surgeon was relieved of those duties.

Dr. Richard Gitter, 48, was placed on administrative leave in early December, about 10 months after arriving in Fredericksburg.

It’s not clear why the action took place. Mary Washington officials yesterday would say only that the University of Virginia Health System, Gitter’s employer, took the action, and that it was an “administrative” leave, not “clinical.”

“Since Dr. Gitter is an employee of U.Va., they would be the ones to talk to about the administrative leave,” hospital spokeswoman Debbie McInnis wrote in an email.

Mary Washington signed a five-year contract with the University of Virginia Health System to manage its heart surgery program. Gitter arrived in Fredericksburg in February as the first representative of that new relationship.

Gitter could not be reached for comment yesterday. He did not return two messages left at a number for his home. The Free Lance-Star also asked U.Va. officials for help in contacting Gitter for an interview.

A spokesman for U.Va. yesterday confirmed that Gitter had been placed on administrative leave but declined to say why the action was taken, when it took place or how long it might last.

“Typically in cases like this, we don’t discuss it any further,” spokesman Eric Swensen said.

Gitter’s departure continues a difficult period for the hospital’s flagship program. Mary Washington started a heart surgery program in 1994 with Dr. John Armitage as its medical director.

Armitage departed in 2010, to be succeeded by Dr. Pyongsoo Yoon. Yoon was medical director for about 11 months before leaving to take a job in Memphis, Tenn.

Hospital officials turned to U.Va. in hopes of building the program into one of the state’s best.

Gitter arrived in Fredericksburg after working for three years at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

He is a native of New Orleans and a graduate of Tulane University. He received advanced training at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and the University of Virginia Medical Center.

When he arrived here, Gitter said his role was to make the heart surgery program better.

“We’ve had struggles in the past, and we don’t want those struggles. Our community demands and deserves more than that,” he said.

Added Fred Rankin, president and chief executive officer of Mary Washington Healthcare, at the time: “It is a rebuilding, but it’s not a reclamation project. It’s taking what is a good program and making it great.”

Gitter arrived in Fredericksburg while still involved in a lengthy federal lawsuit with Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg.

Gitter sued the hospital and Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates, a Richmond heart practice, for breach of contract when he was not hired by the practice to run the heart surgery program at the Harrisonburg hospital.

The dispute began in 2007, according to court files from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond.

Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates and the hospital told Gitter that he was the candidate recommended for the job by a search committee, according to the court papers.

However, during the credentialing process, Gitter answered no when asked if his hospital privileges had ever been restricted during a disciplinary action.

Gitter’s privileges had been suspended by St. Vincent’s Medical Center East in Birmingham, Ala., for failing to find someone to cover for him during an on-call shift.

Nine days later, St. Vincent’s rescinded the suspension and placed Gitter on probation.

When the issue came up during court proceedings, Gitter said he did not consider the hospital’s action to be disciplinary.

St. Vincent’s had sent Rockingham a form stating that there were no restrictions on Gitter’s privileges and recommending him without reservation.

Gitter and the hospital did agree on an employment contract but never signed it.

Gitter resigned from his job in Birmingham and sold his house, but then learned that the job offer had been rescinded.

“They feared that based on the acrimony that arose during the negotiations, he would not be an easy person to work with,” wrote 4th Circuit Judge Roger Gregory in the majority opinion.

Gitter sued, and for more than four years the case worked its way through different state and federal courts.

The case was dismissed from the 4th Circuit docket three months ago when both sides agreed to a consent order.

With Gitter on leave, Dr. Sang Ho Na is handling the heart surgery program at Mary Washington.

Na arrived in late November. He is board certified and a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He did his advanced training at the Washington Hospital Center and the University of Louisville.

Drs. John Kern, Gorav Ailawadi and Denton Stam will fill in for Na when he is away.

Na has already performed several complex surgeries at Mary Washington.

“He is very busy with lots of referrals from the cardiologists,” said Dr. Henry Clemo, a cardiologist and president at Virginia Cardiovascular Consultants. “We are very lucky to have Dr. Na.”

John Fick, chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees, said Tuesday that he wants the heart surgery program at Mary Washington to feature a superior surgeon who has the confidence of local cardiologists.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Fick added. “Hopefully we can go into the mode of getting stabilized. I think we’re on the right track right now.”


Jim Hall: 540/374-5433