By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
A renowned physician wooed to University Hospital at great public expense three and a half years ago was barred from practicing medicine at the facility last fall after he was accused of repeated acts of sexual harassment. The hospital then tried to keep details of the case secret from the public.
Dr. Robert Ginsburg, one of the nation's best-known cardiologists and the president-elect of the American Heart Association's Denver chapter, was stripped of his hospital privileges in October 1994 after numerous complaints were made against him by nurses and other female colleagues. He responded by suing the hospital to get his job back, but the court file in that case was sealed by a Denver District Court judge at the request of hospital officials, with Ginsburg's consent. It was unsealed last month after Westword went to court to open the file; the state case has since been dropped, and the suit has been refiled in U.S. District Court.
The 46-year-old Ginsburg claims through his lawyers that the charges against him are bogus, the result of political correctness run amok. Ginsburg's only sin, his attorneys say, was to participate in the locker-room banter that had long been a part of life in the hospital's Cardiac Catheterization Lab, to which he was lured from prestigious Stanford University in 1991. "Anyone who watches M*A*S*H," says Ginsburg attorney George Dikeou, "sees the kind of stuff this case involves."
In his federal suit, filed three weeks ago, Ginsburg demands that his privileges be restored and that he be awarded monetary compensation for "reputational damages" and "severe emotional distress."
But documents filed in both state and federal court by University Hospital assert that Ginsburg's behavior at the hospital was far less innocuous than the doctor's attorneys claim. Ginsburg, the hospital says, was guilty of "numerous acts of harassment" between his arrival in Denver and August of last year, when a formal complaint was lodged against him by a Cath Lab nurse. Ginsburg, in fact, had received a verbal reprimand from the dean of the University of Colorado medical school for sexually harassing female employees as far back as December 1992. Ginsburg, the dean later told an investigating committee, seemed to be "mystified" by the women's complaint.
Despite the 1992 warning, the hospital alleges in court papers, Ginsburg's "unprofessional or unethical behavior" continued unabated. It included "verbal statements and innuendos with sexual overtones" and "unwanted and uninvited touching" of hospital employees. Ginsburg used "offensive language" in front of both nurses and patients at the lab, the hospital says, and had even rigged his desktop computer with "sexually suggestive computer software."
Ginsburg has declined repeated requests for an interview. However, in a letter to Westword last week, he reaffirmed his conviction that he has done nothing wrong.
"I have no choice but to publicly challenge the actions taken against me," Ginsburg wrote. "At stake is the entire question of whether censors and zealots motivated by personal bias can be permitted to impose narrow-minded standards of workplace ethics in the life-and-death atmosphere of a hospital operating room."
Nurses and others involved in the case say they have been instructed by the hospital not to talk about it with the media, making it difficult to get a more detailed description of Ginsburg's alleged misdeeds. Still, recently unsealed court papers and interviews with those close to the case shed new light on it, suggesting that the hospital's life-saving Cath Lab was wracked by internal strife prior to Ginsburg's departure. Included in the court file is a sworn statement by the hospital's chief operating officer that, should Ginsburg be given back his job, his mere presence would create so much stress among staff members that patient care might actually suffer.
"It's certainly far beyond M*A*S*H," says Susan Kudla, an attorney representing cardiology administrator Kathy Nold. Says a family member of another alleged victim: "This guy was the scum of the earth."
When Robert Ginsburg received an appointment to the medical faculty of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC) in September 1991, his arrival was announced with considerable fanfare.
The medical school had just received a $2.5 million gift from the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation to launch what it called "a major new effort in cardiovascular research, education and treatment." The grant coincided with the arrival of both Ginsburg and Dr. Michael Bristow, a nationally prominent cardiologist from the University of Utah. Bristow, the hospital announced, would head the entire cardiology division, and Ginsburg would become the new chief of the hospital's expanded Cath Lab.
"Heart disease remains the number-one cause of death in the nation and in Colorado," Buell Foundation president Jack Kent said in a press release at the time. "Mr. Buell's gift to the university will help combat this disease and discover new treatments."
Getting Ginsburg was a coup. A 1974 graduate of Philadelphia's Temple University Medical School, Ginsburg went on to become a professor of medicine at Stanford, where he pioneered a number of groundbreaking techniques for unclogging diseased arteries, especially those of the heart. In 1983, for instance, he used a catheter-born laser to burn away an arterial blockage in the leg of a 62-year-old man. The patient, who otherwise faced amputation of the leg, left Stanford that day needing no more postoperative medication than a bottle of aspirin. It was the first time any doctor in the world had performed the operation, and the feat landed Ginsburg's name on the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.