A charismatic head surgeon who attracted high-profile doctors to the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson says he’s being forced out of his job.
Dr. Rainer Gruessner has filed a 191-page lawsuit in Pima County Superior Court that describes professional rivalries and discord at Southern Arizona’s only top-level trauma center. He’s still head of the UA department of surgery, but he’s been on paid administrative leave since mid-September, records indicate.
A Sept. 19 email to Gruessner that’s part of the court file forbids the surgeon from returning to campus without first making arrangements with UA Medical Center security.
Gruessner’s annual salary, which comes from several sources, including state support for the surgery department and income from clinical practice, is $771,334, UA records show.
Records that are part of the court file indicate the UA is investigating a claim that Gruessner either altered records on transplant procedures himself or directed others to alter them.
Gruessner denies any wrongdoing. Rather, he says in court documents, his suspension is retaliation because he has spoken up about “a climate of fear, retaliation and favoritism” that has developed during College of Medicine Dean Steve Goldschmid’s tenure, resulting in low morale among faculty and staff, and a financial system that rewards Goldschmid’s supporters.
The German-born physician is not asking for any financial damages. Rather, the lawsuit seeks reinstatement of his positions as a tenured professor at the College of Medicine, as chairman of the department of surgery, and as an active staff physician for University Physicians Healthcare, which staffs the UA Medical Center.
Gruessner came to Tucson from the University of Minnesota in 2007 to head the surgery department at the medical school and at the UA Medical Center, an academic teaching hospital in Tucson that is Southern Arizona’s only Level-I trauma center.
As Gruessner expanded both the department and the types of surgeries it performs, he made some significant hires. Among doctors he recruited were Dr. Peter Rhee and Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., who became known around the world when they cared for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others wounded in the Jan. 8, 2011, Tucson mass shooting.
Gruessner hired four of six leading members of the medical team that treated the 11 shooting patients taken to the UA Medical Center after the tragedy.
Officials from the UA and the UA Health Network on Tuesday said they do not comment on pending litigation.
“They will file appropriate responses to the lawsuit with the court,” spokeswoman Katie Riley wrote in an email.
“Dr. Gruessner maintains his title as head of the UA department of surgery. He is on paid administrative leave. Dr. Alexander Chiu is the acting head of the department of surgery.”
The number of transplants performed at the UA Medical Center steadily increased after Gruessner began working at the UA. Among other things, he encouraged more use of living donors and performed the hospital’s first living-donor intestinal transplant.
He also helped implement an auto islet cell transplant program for people with pancreatitis, and hired Dr. Horacio Rilo from the University of Cincinnati’s islet transplant program.
However, there was a growing rift between Goldschmid and the department of surgery, Gruessner’s attorneys write.
“Soon after ascending to the deanship in 2009, Dean Goldschmid began progressively withdrawing support for the department of surgery — apparently, the result of a perceived rivalry with Dr. Gruessner and the department of surgery,” a document filed by Gruessner’s attorneys says.
“At the core of the differences between Dean Goldschmid and Dr. Gruessner is a strong disagreement over how to realize the research, educational and clinical objectives of the College of Medicine and its departments.”
A photocopied Sept. 19 memorandum from UA Health Network president and CEO Dr. Michael Waldrum says Gruessner’s administrative leave was prompted by information that he had violated protocol related to transplant records.
Gruessner’s legal action says that, upon reviewing transplant records, he figured out that he should have been listed as the surgeon in more of the transplant cases than the records reflected, and asked a colleague to help fix the problem. But hospital officials say Gruessner “unilaterally” changed a database without the authority to do so.
“The manner in which he (Gruessner) conducted himself put the entire abdominal transplant program at risk,” UA Medical Center attorney Amy J. Gittler wrote in an Oct. 21 memo that’s part of the court file.
Lawyers for Gruessner write that the transplant surgeon tried everything to avoid having to file suit against his joint employers, and did so reluctantly out of concern for his professional future and the wellbeing of his patients.
The UA Medical Center’s transplant program has already suffered, and faculty members have begun interviewing at other institutions, Gruessner says.
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 13. Neal H. Bookspan, one of Gruessner’s Phoenix-based attorneys, did not immediately return a phone call or email Wednesday.