A Southern California anesthesiologist said he believed an unconscious patient "would get a kick" out of him placing stickers on her face during surgery, but the horrified woman has sued him and the hospital for allegedly spreading a cellphone photograph on the Internet.
Dr. Patrick Yang's action during the October 2011 surgery also has prompted a state investigation and a rebuke from Torrance Memorial Medical Center, which called his joke a "breach of professionalism" but kept him employed.
The attorney for Veronica Valdez, 36, who worked at the hospital for 13 years before her surgery, said Valdez did not find any humor in the doctor's antics or in the photo that another employee took of her face while she was out cold.
"There's no such thing as a joke in the operating room. For them to play a joke is cruel in my opinion," attorney Andrew Ryan said. "I have not seen anything like this. It's an incredible breach of privacy, of HIPAA, of common decency, of the Hippocratic Oath."
Ryan said Valdez started in the hospital's kitchen, went to night school to become a nursing assistant and was promoted to a job ordering medical supplies for the operating room. She underwent finger surgery in 2011.
In his deposition, Yang admitted to cutting up sticky medication labels with scissors and attaching teardrops and a mustache to her face.
"I think she would get a laugh out of it," he told attorneys. "She would appreciate it, thought that it was funny.
Asked if he was bored at the time, Yang said, "I don't recall my state of mind except that I thought she would think that was funny, so I did that so she would get a kick out of it."
Ryan said everyone in the room laughed at Valdez when they saw it. One employee, nursing assistant Patricia Gomez, was asked by Yang to take the photograph, but denied emailing it or posting it on Facebook.
But co-workers told attorneys they did see it on Facebook, Ryan said.
"It really ruined my client's career of 13 years," Ryan said. "It's just really unfortunate and it changed her life forever."
The lawsuit also alleges that Valdez's neck was positioned while she was unconscious "so that they could keep her mouth open in order to make a crude sexual joke."
Ryan said Valdez took three weeks off following her surgery but developed cervical spine issues. She began to receive "very strange comments and weird things started happening to her.
"She was really kind of sent into a downward spiral," Ryan said. "She didn't want to go back."
Torrance Memorial Medical Center issued a statement saying the photograph was indeed taken at Yang's request, but it was intended to be humorous. Yang, the statement said, was friendly with Valdez and had a good working relationship with her.
The hospital said a "breach of professionalism" occurred, but it is vigorously defending the lawsuit and requesting its dismissal. A hearing is scheduled today.
"Most of the allegations stated in the plaintiff's complaint are factually inaccurate, grossly exaggerated or fabricated," the statement said. "The patient and her attorney reported the incident to multiple authorities who conducted investigations. No criminal charges were filed or citations given. In addition, the medical center reported the situation to the Joint Commission and the American Nurses Credentialing Center, both of which investigated and closed the incident with no findings."
The statement said the anesthesiologist and the nurse assistant who took the photograph "demonstrated poor judgment."
"This type of behavior, despite the familiarity of the patient, is not condoned and cannot happen in an operating room," the statement said.
Yang and his Torrance Anesthesia Medical Group were suspended for two weeks.
Hospital officials disciplined the nursing assistant who took the photograph, conducted internal behavioral training for the operating room staff and has "strengthened its policy on patient privacy," which includes a zero tolerance for taking photos in the operating room, the statement said.
The California Department of Public Health also is conducting an investigation.
HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act approved by Congress about 12 years ago, details federal regulations for patient privacy.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.