WINCHESTER, Ky. (WKYT) - Close to one hundred former patients of a Kentucky orthopedic surgeon have come forward believing they are victims of malpractice by Dr. Michael Heilig, and many of them are upset he is licensed to practice again.
The surgeon was found to have a cocktail of drugs in his system during two surgeries he performed on May 10, 2018. His medical license was restricted, and he was suspended from Clark Regional Medical Center, where the operations occurred that day.
An investigation by the medical licensure board interviewed nurses in the operating room with Heilig on May 10. One nurse in the operating room told the medical licensure board Dr. Heilig was "talking weird," "stumbling with his eyes closed and mumbling" and "almost fell off a stool." A drug screen that day showed oxycodone and generic Xanax in his system, among other similar drugs. The only prescription he was able to show the drug screen lab was one for oxycodone from 2009.
Both Heilig and the licensure board entered into an agreed order to try to settle the case. The order included a stipulation that he could get the restrictions on his license removed if he stayed clean for 90 days. And in what former patients call a shocking move, Dr. Heilig's restrictions were lifted from his license after staying clean for 90 days.
Berea resident Arvil Cain had surgery with Dr. Heilig just two weeks before his license was restricted.
"It scared the pee out of me. Honestly, it scared me to death," Cain said upon learning about the allegations. "I said, 'Oh, Lord, what kind of a mess am I into here now?'"
Cain had surgery on Apr. 24 with Dr. Heilig after breaking his ankle. It's now been seven months. His general practitioner confirmed there is a bone trying to come through his skin on the top of his foot, and his swollen and painful ankle is not in place. It's practically floating.
"It's getting crookeder and crookeder (sic). Pretty soon I'm going to be walking on the side of my foot," Cain said.
He only saw Dr. Heilig one time in pre-op, and every time Cain would go to the doctor's office to explain that things didn't look right, he said a physician's assistant would tell Cain his foot was healing just right.
"I had to believe what they were telling me, and what they were telling me sounded stupid," Cain said.
Cain is far from alone in his grievance, about 100 former patients have reached out to WKYT about Heilig, saying the surgeon's operations on them have led to continued pain and complications. Some are filing individual lawsuits. WKYT does not know of any class action suits at this time. Individual malpractice lawsuits are being filed in some cases.
Peggy Nesbit is in the process of filing a lawsuit. Heilig performed ankle surgery on her in January. Another orthopedist confirmed she has damage that causes her leg to turn purple and cold.
"It felt like someone's putting a lighter to it-- real real burning. And it gets real, real purple. It gets ice cold," Nesbit said.
In both Nesbit and Cain's cases, they don't have proof Dr. Heilig was abusing drugs during their surgery. Although Heilig admits in his letter to the licensure board that he has "been taking zolpidem consistently for the past two and a half years as almost part of a daily routine."
Zolpidem is a prescription-only sleeping aide. He said, "It was not until the events of May 10th, 2018 that I realized the nature of my problem, and the danger or the risks involved with my problem."
He also admitted calling in prescriptions under his medical practice partners' DEA numbers. WKYT has passed this information to the local DEA for further investigation. We also asked the medical licensure board why they gave Heilig his license back under these circumstances. They cannot comment on individual cases.
Dr. Heilig was employed at Kentucky Orthopedic Associates during the incident. They had no comment on him no longer working at the practice. While the surgery took place in the operating room at Clark Regional Medical Center, he was not employed there. Instead, it's common practice for independent physicians to have privileges to use hospital facilities.
Hospitals will still have to grant Heilig privileges in order for him to operate again.
"Dr. Heilig does not have privileges at Clark Regional Medical Center," a hospital spokesperson said. "As a matter of practice, we do not comment on matters related to any current or former member of our medical staff, so we are unable to provide additional information."
Heilig would not comment to WKYT Investigates on the accusations or if he plans to practice again following the board's decision.