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