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.
Ginsburg also became an expert in a number of so-called "interventional" procedures by which doctors can treat diseased heart arteries without having to undertake expensive and dangerous open-heart surgery. Among them: angioplasty, in which a tiny balloon at the end of a hair-thin catheter is inflated inside an artery to unblock it; and atherectomy, a similar procedure in which a catheter is used to ream out vessels clogged with plaque. Ginsburg's talent extended to the conceptual level as well: He patented a number of new designs for arterial catheters and then sold them to private medical companies.
"He is brilliant," says one University Hospital employee familiar with the Ginsburg case. "He has some wonderful ideas. He's very, very smart."
Ginsburg didn't come cheap, however. According to UCHSC spokeswoman Bobbi Barrow, Ginsburg was being paid $187,355 per year at the time his privileges at University Hospital were suspended last fall.
(Even though Ginsburg is no longer allowed to practice medicine at University Hospital, he still is earning his full salary. UCHSC is a separate legal entity from the hospital, and Ginsburg's suspension has only affected his hospital privileges, not his status as a University of Colorado employee. A CU spokeswoman says Ginsburg will continue to draw his pay until UCHSC completes its own investigation of the sexual-harassment allegations.)
How the expulsion of Ginsburg, the person specifically hired to run the Cath Lab, has affected the university's cardiovascular program is a matter of debate.
Ginsburg claims that both patients' health and the hospital's research mission have suffered in the wake of his departure. "Prior to my suspension, my patients enjoyed the benefit of my unique and specialized skills," he wrote in a court affidavit. "My patients are exposed to real and immediate physical harm because I am barred from treating them." Several important programs and research projects at the Cath Lab, Ginsburg wrote, have been shut down in his absence, simply because he is the only one qualified to administer them.
University Hospital sharply disputes those claims. According to affidavits from UCHSC cardiologists Dimitri Kaufman and Bertron Groves and senior hospital officials, neither patient care nor research has been adversely affected by Ginsburg's removal. "I know of no situation in which a patient of Dr. Ginsburg has received inappropriate care," Kaufman wrote. Joyce Cashman, the hospital's chief operating officer, gave a sworn statement in which she averred that giving Ginsburg his job back might actually cause harm to patients by increasing stress in the Cath Lab. "It is my opinion that employee morale would suffer and that there could be a decreased ability to provide high-quality, safe patient care," Cashman wrote.
The lone voice of support for Ginsburg at CU has come from Michael Bristow, the cardiology chief.
"The Cath Lab has a substantially reduced ability to perform interventional procedures in Dr. Ginsburg's absence, particularly in complex or life-threatening cases," Bristow wrote in a court affidavit. The university's "Lifelink" hypothermic program has been "seriously compromised" by Ginsburg's departure, Bristow noted, and academic research at the Cath Lab "effectively ended" when Ginsburg left.
Bristow is a longtime associate of Ginsburg's. The pair worked closely together at Stanford in the early 1980s before Bristow moved to the University of Utah. And Bristow actually was the one who recruited Ginsburg to UCHSC, convincing him to move to Colorado shortly after Bristow's own arrival at the medical school.
One of the reasons nurses at the Cath Lab are so tight-lipped about the Ginsburg case is that they fear Bristow, says the University Hospital employee familiar with the case. Bristow and Ginsburg are "so tight" that nurses believe Bristow might somehow retaliate against them if they talk about the case, says the employee. "He's who everybody is afraid of. He wields a lot of power."
During Ginsburg's tenure at the hospital, Bristow shrugged off informal complaints of sexual harassment that were brought to him by nurses and others, the employee claims. "The attitude from Bristow [about Ginsburg] was: `That's just him; you have to just live with it,'" the employee says.
According to Bristow's wife, the doctor has been out of town for the last few weeks and is unavailable for comment.
"What you've got here are two very brilliant men who have a lot to offer," says the hospital employee. "But what's going to be tolerated in the world? Does the world have to put up with being treated like dirt just because [Ginsburg's] so talented?"
The first sign that Robert Ginsburg had a problem interacting with female colleagues came in December 1992. According to court records, George Thomas, a UCHSC administrator, received an informal complaint from two university employees about "sexually-harassing behavior" from Ginsburg. The nature of the behavior is not specified.
Thomas forwarded the complaint to Dr. Richard Krugman, dean of the medical school. Krugman, who was interviewed by a special, five-member committee investigating Ginsburg last year, testified that he called the cardiologist into his office, informed him of the university's policy on sexual harassment and told him to "shape up or there'll be problems."
Ginsburg, Krugman told the committee, was highly embarrassed. "I remember him saying, `I can't believe I've only been here a short time and I'm already called down to the dean's office,'" Krugman said.
But Ginsburg never seemed to grasp exactly what it was he had done wrong, he added.
"`Contrite' was the wrong word," Krugman said. "I don't think he felt he had intended to do anything like this, and I think he was a little bit mystified by it...He was sorry that this was trouble. But I don't think in retrospect...that he ever really acknowledged the impact he was having on others."
Rather than "shaping up," Ginsburg continued to subject nurses in the Cath Lab to a barrage of inappropriate behavior over the following eighteen months, according to a pleading filed by hospital attorney Joseph Jaudon in federal court last week. Jaudon, who declines comment, doesn't describe any of that alleged conduct in detail in his filing. But the pleading says the doctor continuously subjected female employees to sexual innuendo, offensive language and "unwanted" physical contact.
"Dr. Ginsburg's action prompted a hostile working environment, resulting in increased stress and mental anguish for several employees," Jaudon wrote in the pleading. "Dr. Ginsburg failed to treat employees and patients with dignity and respect."
Karen Moore, a Cath Lab nurse, wrote in an affidavit that Ginsburg gave preferential treatment to women who put up with his alleged antics. "Dr. Ginsburg tended to treat nurses and other staff differently depending on whether they were `favorites' of his and whether they appeared to be more accepting of his behavior," Moore said. "This tended to polarize the staff to some extent and make it more difficult to function as a team."
Affidavits by other Cath Lab employees reveal how uncomfortable Ginsburg's conduct made them. Nurse Cathy Clark, for instance, wrote that Ginsburg was "verbally abusive and alienating." Sheri Baker-Macelli, the lab secretary, said in a sworn statement that if Ginsburg were to come back to University Hospital, "I could not continue to work there."
Even though Ginsburg didn't have the direct authority to fire any of the Cath Lab staff, many of the nurses believed that they might be dismissed if they complained, says the hospital employee familiar with the case. And Ginsburg allegedly made no effort to dispel that notion. "There were people in fear for their jobs, because if they didn't play along, they were going to be censured," the employee says. "It was very, very ugly."
Last summer, Moore finally lodged a written complaint against Ginsburg, setting in motion University Hospital's formal disciplinary machinery. The hospital established the five-member investigative committee to look into the matter. On the committee were four doctors and a nurse. In October, after interviewing two dozen witnesses, the committee recommended that Ginsburg's privileges at the hospital be terminated. The committee suggested that Ginsburg might be allowed to return after a one-year suspension, but only if he agreed to acknowledge his behavior and undergo psychiatric evaluation. Ginsburg rejected that offer.
Like the attorneys involved in the case, the University Hospital employee declines to be specific about the actual alleged acts of sexual harassment by Ginsburg. But the employee says the fact that a committee made up mostly of doctors urged that Ginsburg be dismissed is itself an indicator of how objectionable his conduct was. Physicians, the employee says, are notorious for their circle-the-wagons mentality--and they are almost always loath to criticize one of their own colleagues.
"I have never seen doctors get together and censure another doctor," says the employee. "Even if they don't like the guy and they think he's the slime of the earth, they still don't censure him. And the people who censured Bob were his own peers. For that to happen, you have to think there was some pretty strong stuff going on here. They don't do that lightly."
After Ginsburg's privileges were suspended last fall, he filed suit against University Hospital in Denver District Court, seeking reinstatement of his job as well as monetary compensation for the damage to his reputation and his emotional pain and suffering. Also named as defendants in the suit were two of the Cath Lab employees who'd complained about him and Kathleen Mills, the hospital's in-house lawyer. One of Ginsburg's claims in the suit was that attorney Mills harbored "animosity and bias" toward him and tried to "coerce, influence and pressure" the nurses into filing formal sexual-harassment charges.
Ginsburg's lawyer, George Dikeou, acknowledged in court pleadings that Ginsburg participated in off-color humor at the Cath Lab. But Dikeou claimed that such banter is an accepted part of life in the lab among doctors and nurses alike. The jokes even served a good purpose, the attorney said, helping to relieve tension during pressure-filled "life-and-death" surgical procedures.
And Ginsburg refrained from such talk around those employees who told him it made them uncomfortable, Dikeou claimed. "Such behavior and humor was consensual on the part of those who participated, including Cath Lab nurses," Dikeou wrote in one pleading. "Such behavior and humor was not continued in the presence of those who were offended."
As divergent as their accounts of what happened in the lab are, both Ginsburg and the hospital agreed on one thing initially: Details of the case should remain hidden from the public.
In November last year, while Ginsburg's case was still in Denver District Court, hospital attorney Jaudon petitioned Judge Connie Peterson to limit access to the entire case file, arguing that the "sensitive nature" of the lawsuit meant it should be off-limits to members of the media and other prying eyes.
"The privacy interests of the plaintiff and the defendants...outweigh the public interest in this matter," Jaudon wrote. Dikeou joined Jaudon's motion. Peterson granted the request.
In January, Westword filed a motion in Denver District Court asking Peterson to unseal the file. Jaudon opposed the motion, arguing that Ginsburg's alleged victims needed to be "protected" from "the zealous press."
At a March 22 hearing, Peterson reversed herself and ruled that the file should be open. "The public interest must prevail," she said.
Ginsburg's state court claim eventually was dismissed on procedural grounds, but he filed a similar suit in U.S. District Court late last month.
Attorney Dikeou says Ginsburg is still doing some lecturing at the medical school but otherwise spends most of his time at his $400,000 home in Greenwood Village.
In his letter to Westword last week, Ginsburg noted that no one involved in the controversy has ever challenged his abilities as a physician.
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"When I became a doctor, I devoted my life to the care and treatment of people with heart disease," he wrote. "I have worked very hard to build a professional reputation that reflects my dedication to patient care and academic research...I continue to be an excellent practitioner. Even my harshest critics agree that the present dispute has not raised a single doubt or question about my competence as a physician."
By taking his case to court, Ginsburg has risked further humiliation. But the doctor has a good deal of incentive to fight the hospital: Though his medical license has not been revoked, he is not practicing medicine at any hospital while he remains a University of Colorado employee, says Dikeou. Mills (who denies she carried out a vendetta against Ginsburg) adds that Ginsburg's suspension will now be entered on a national database that hospitals use before extending privileges to any doctor. Inclusion on that list could conceivably make it difficult for him to find other work.
But the University Hospital employee familiar with the case remains convinced that Ginsburg's reasons for going to court aren't just economic. The doctor, the employee says, sincerely believes he is innocent.
"He doesn't think he's done anything wrong," says the employee. "And that if he has, nobody should mind because he's so wonderful, because he's so talented and so brilliant and has so much to offer. I just don't think he really sees it as anything bad. He just doesn't get it.