ON JUNE 8, 2003, A FORMER POPEYES COOK FROM HOUSTON named Cecil Viands’s died following routine spinal surgery at Vista Medical Center Hospital, in Pasadena. The cause was a massive infection. Under normal circumstances, Viands’s death might have been seen as a bit of horrifyingly bad luck, the sort of thing that happens to one unfortunate patient in a million. But luck had little or nothing to do with it. The immediate assumption in much of the local medical community was that Viands had died because of the incompetence of his doctor: an orthopedic surgeon and one-man surgery mill named Eric Heston Scheffey.
Viands’s death was only the latest episode in a long, grim tale of malpractice stretching back more than a decade. Scheffey had performed five surgeries on him since 1992. In complex and largely unjustified procedures that few orthopedists would ever have attempted, he’d methodically removed a large portion of Viands’s lower spine, taking out six vertebral disks, a good deal of bone, and alternately inserting and removing intricate arrays of screws, rods, bone-graft cages, and electronic growth stimulators. His activities went well beyond what consulting doctors had recommended or what the patient had authorized. In a single operation, he’d cut into Viands’ spine in seven different places—virtually unprecedented except in cases of severe accidents. He’d removed bone in order to decompress fourteen nerve roots—again, something most surgeons would never have even considered. According to an orthopedist who later reviewed the case for the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, Scheffey’s surgical failure rate over those five surgeries was 100 percent. And almost all of them were entirely unnecessary. By the time the infection killed him, Viands was already facing life as a disabled person.
As disturbing as Viands’s case is, it was by no means unique or even unusual for Scheffey. There was Ed Gonzalez, for example, an auto body repairman from Humble who’d hurt his back lifting heavy equipment. Scheffey operated on him four times between 2001 and 2003, cutting out disks and bone and busily installing and removing hardware. After each surgery, Gonzalez’s back pain got worse. He is now unable to walk around the block, unable to sleep, and in pain 24 hours a day. He says that he might have killed himself if his father had not hidden his shotgun. A person identified only as B.P. in public records, a school custodian on whose spine Scheffey operated three times between 1998 and 2000, now has a condition called drop foot in which her foot hangs limply in a vertical position. She must wear a brace to walk. She has lost all bladder control and has to wear diapers. According to a later finding by a judge, not only did B.P. not consent to the surgeries, but they too were completely unnecessary. There is a long list of such people. Many, like B.P. and Viands’s widow, have sued Scheffey; many have not.
By almost any measure of medical performance, including the sheer number of his patients who are crippled, maimed, or in constant pain, Scheffey ranks as one of the worst doctors in American history. He is easily the most sued. Since 1982 he has had 78 malpractice claims filed against him, a total that does not count what one attorney estimates to be more than 150 people who would have sued him if they had not been beyond the legal statute of limitations or if lawyers had been willing to take their cases. He has settled 45 of those suits for more than $13 million. At least 5 people have died as a result of Scheffey’s surgeries, though doctors, attorneys, and former patients will tell you that the actual, unreported number is much higher. At least 4 of Scheffey’s patients have committed suicide because of the pain they were in or because of the depression brought on by the massive doses of narcotics the doctor prescribed or a combination of the two. One of those patients was so miserable that he committed suicide after he’d received a cash settlement from Scheffey.
Oddly, Scheffey’s litigation-stained career has been anything but anonymous or low profile. It has been splashed all over Houston newspapers, magazines, and television news reports, which have been fascinated by his spectacular cocaine bust, in 1985, and by the multiplicity of lawsuits against him. There was also Scheffey’s flamboyant lifestyle, which featured multimillion-dollar mansions in River Oaks and Shadyside; a house full of expensive, big-name art; a collection of Ferraris; a private jet; and status as a favorite son of Houston’s art community. He has been the subject of five legal actions by the state medical board to either restrict or revoke his license. Viands’s death led the board to suspend Scheffey’s license in 2003. In February 2005, after 24 years, it was finally revoked, and he was fined $845,000.
Scheffey did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story, but if his own estimate in a deposition is correct—that his three thousand spinal procedures represented 20 to 30 percent of his total surgeries—then he may have performed eight thousand or more total operations on knees, ankles, hands, and shoulders, as well as spines. Yet what makes his story even more startling is that all were done with the explicit consent of a vast medical, insurance, and governmental bureaucracy, which, even after he became notorious for injuring patients, approved and funded every unnecessary surgery he did.
LIKE VIANDS, Mary Tywater believed she was going into the hospital for a routine operation. On the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend in 1985, Scheffey operated on the 43-year-old Daisetta housewife to remove several disks in her back and fuse several vertebrae. He was in the midst of that surgery when he lost control of her bleeding. Some four hours into the operation, Tywater was dead. There was blood everywhere in the operating room. The anesthesiologist’s report is nearly illegible because it is smeared with Tywater’s blood. Scheffey was 35 at the time,