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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Surgeon stapled the arm of an operating room nurse while ‘playing around,’ panel says

Dr. Benjamin Allen

A committee of the Virginia Board of Medicine has recommended that a Culpeper surgeon be reprimanded for an “egregious pattern of disruptive behavior.”

The committee said that Dr. Benjamin Allen interfered with patient care when he argued with an anesthesiologist in the presence of a surgical patient, jokingly told the hospital staff that he needed operating-room time to redo a patient’s knee surgery, and stapled the arm of an operating room nurse while “playing around.”

The committee said that Allen’s actions were a violation of state law, and it fined him $1,500. The disciplinary action took place Jan. 16 following a public hearing in Richmond. Allen apologized to the committee and said he was embarrassed by his actions.

“This has been a humbling journey for me,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “I never put any patients in danger.”

Allen is an orthopedic surgeon who has worked in the Culpeper area for more than 30 years. At various times, he has been chief of surgery, a member of the board of trustees, and president of the medical staff at Culpeper Regional Hospital.

He was summoned to appear before the committee following a series of incidents at the hospital, dating to 2009. They included:

* A March 2012 incident when he performed a total knee replacement on a patient described as Patient A in board documents. He arranged with the hospital staff to place Patient A on the operating-room schedule for a second surgery to the same knee for two days later, the board said.

Allen said he was joking about the need for a second surgery, but several members of the hospital staff were not aware that the surgery was a joke. They prepared the room for surgery, according to board documents.  At least one other surgeon at the hospital requested surgical time but could not get it because of the joke surgery, the board said.

In addition, the patient was upset when she “learned that she had been scheduled for revision surgery,” the board document says.

Allen said Monday that the patient’s surgery was a success. He called the scheduling clerk to arrange the second surgery as a joke, because a computer had acted up during the original surgery, he said.

He said he called back 30 minutes later to cancel the surgery and was “astounded” to learn that it was not removed from the schedule.

“The patient was not upset with me after I explained to her what happened. Furthermore, she came back to have her other total knee replaced,” Allen said.

As for his colleagues, Allen said, “Because it caused concern for a significant number of staff people, it clearly was the wrong thing to do. I certainly don’t have any intention of doing that again.”

* An April 2012 incident, when Allen argued loudly with an anesthesiologist in the operating room while two other anesthesiologists were preparing Patient B for hip surgery. Patient B was conscious at the time.

Hospital administrators had to intervene. Afterwards, one of the anesthesiologists refused to work with Allen, according to the board document.

Patient B developed abnormally low blood pressure while receiving anesthesia, and her surgery had to be canceled. When she recovered, she was taken to the ICU to be monitored, according to the board.

Allen said this week that he learned the night before Patient B’s surgery that she would be ready for an operation the next morning. The anesthesiologist was not aware of that and, on the morning of the surgery, wanted to wait for lab tests, which triggered the argument.

“That morning I was trying to get the situation going,” Allen said. “I only had a certain amount of time, and it was my impression that the lady was going to be ready to go. She was in the minds of some and not in the minds of others.”

Allen said he wishes now he had said, “Fine, pour me a cup and I’ll sit and chat with you until everyone is comfortable and ready to go.”

Allen said the person who refused to work with him that morning was Dr. Khalid Athar, who now feels differently. This month, Athar traveled to Richmond to testify on Allen’s behalf at the hearing. He described Allen as a skilled surgeon who is loved by his patients and a leader at the hospital, according to the board report.

* A 2009 incident when Allen was “playing around” and stapled the forearm of a nurse in the operating room, according to the board.

Afterwards, the nurse followed the protocol for blood exposure since the staple gun had just been used on a patient.

Allen said this week that he is a practical joker, like his grandfather. He intended to staple the puffy sleeve of the nurse’s gown, not her arm, he said.

“I never intended to harm this lady,” he said. “I went immediately  downstairs and got flowers for her.”

Allen said the nurse “brought her husband to me later to have his hip replaced.”

“She and I scrubbed together today,” he added.

* At a surgical section meeting, Allen berated several podiatrists, telling them to, “Leave the surgery to the real doctors,” according to board documents.

Allen said Monday that the podiatrists wanted to be added to the emergency room call list for patients with certain foot and ankle injuries. He said he was misquoted in the board documents.

“I did state that I thought that the emergency room should be covered by physicians and surgeons,” he said.

Later, the hospital’s attorney agreed with that position, and the podiatrists were not added to the call list.

“I am obviously sorry for all these things, because I could have made my points in a different fashion,” Allen said.

Allen is board certified and a graduate of the University of California. He went to medical school at Tufts University and did his advanced training at Harvard University.

Allen has until Feb. 25 to appeal the committee’s recommendation. If he does not appeal, the decision becomes final. He said this week he will not appeal.

 The Board of Medicine’s order for Dr. Benjamin Allen is here.

Dr. Allen offered The Free Lance-Star a statement on Jan. 28. It says:

I never put any patients in danger. Patient safety and care is my utmost priority. In the past my reactions to system breakdown have been disproportionate at times, but I have worked hard to harness my drive and put all my energy into improving the health system of Culpeper Regional Hospital by helping to create an Orthopaedic Center of Excellence and by helping to achieve the best low infection rate in the region.

This has been a humbling journey for me. Today, I am even more committed to providing excellent orthopaedic care with extreme compassion for my patients at all times and in all places.

I hope this article might reveal that doctors are human.  Perhaps we don’t always put our best foot forward when working with staff members in stressful situations; however, we, doctors, can learn the impact this has on others and improve our methods of interpersonal communications to improve our healthcare system overall.

I am thankful to have the opportunity to offer my patients the chance to have their joint replacements at the new Center of Excellence at Culpeper Regional Hospital.

This hospital has an extremely low infection rate, a low complication rate, and according to Leapfrog, is the only hospital in the area to have an “A” rating in patient safety.

Thank you,

Benjamin F. Allen MD