When Eileen Brandt first woke up from the anesthesia in early 2013, she immediately started to cry.
Up until that point, it hadn’t fully hit her: she just had her third miscarriage. And under the bright lights of the operating room at the Women’s Center at Sharp Grossmont in La Mesa, California, a Southern California city less than 10 miles from downtown San Diego, doctors meticulously performed a dilation and curettage procedure to remove any lingering tissue from her pregnancy.
In the weeks prior to the D&C, Brandt, who was 31-years-old at the time, and her husband, were cautiously optimistic about the pregnancy. She knew she had a history of miscarriages, but she also grew hopeful as time continued to progress and everything appeared to be going smoothly. Brandt and her husband desperately wanted to start a family.
During a routine ultrasound examination, however, doctors discovered no heartbeat. They told her they needed to schedule a D&C procedure. Brandt was devastated.
In the weeks after the D&C, Brandt grieved the loss of her child; she felt ashamed and angry at the world for her fertility struggles. “Why are we having all these troubles? We’re healthy, we’re doing everything the right way, why are we having all these troubles when other people don’t seem to be having any problems?” Brandt told INSIDER. “There’s those things you go through in your mind that eat at you when you’re grieving from a miscarriage.”
And then she found out that the procedure at the Sharp Grossmont facility had secretly been filmed.
A recent lawsuit in California, for which Brandt is a plaintiff, claims the Women’s Health Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital secretly recorded around 1,800 women between July 2012 and June 2013 as they underwent a range of gynecological procedures, including Caesarean births, D&Cs after miscarriages, hysterectomies, and sterilizations. They claim their faces — and therefore their identities — were exposed in the videos. In total, the hospital’s surveillance system generated nearly 7,000 video clips.
“The recordings captured women while they were emotionally and physically exposed, and at their most vulnerable,” the complaint, filed in March, states. “At times, Defendants’ patients had their most sensitive genital areas visible.”
INSIDER reviewed almost 400 pages of legal files related to this story. The earliest documents date to a 2016 lawsuit against the hospital that its’ plaintiff, a former patient, later dismissed for personal reasons. A subsequent lawsuit, filed in 2017 on similar grounds, failed to obtain class-action certification after the assigned judge ruled that each potential plaintiff needed to individually prove their damages. In March, a group of 81 former Sharp patients filed their own lawsuit in California’s Superior Court of San Diego to do just that. Allison Goddard, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that 50 more women joined the lawsuit this week — bringing the total to 131 women.
“For some of these women, it was the day that they gave birth to a healthy child, and that was one of the happiest days of their lives. But, for a lot of these women, it was the saddest day of their lives,” Goddard told INSIDER. “[The women] are scared, they’re worried about who’s seen the videos and whether anyone has done anything with them. It’s really shaken their faith and trust in the medical system.”
Sharp HealthCare, the company that oversees Sharp Grossmont Hospital, said in a statement provided to INSIDER that a computer monitor with a motion-activated camera was installed in the three Women’s Center operating rooms — meant to uncover what happened to drugs missing from anesthesia carts.
“Although the cameras were intended to record only individuals in front of the anesthesia carts removing drugs, others — including patients and medical personnel in the operating rooms — were at times visible to the cameras and recorded,” the statement said. “The surveillance methods in the 2012-13 investigation were used for that particular case only and have not been used again. We sincerely regret that our efforts to ensure medication security may have caused any distress to those we serve.”
Holes in the hospital’s story
While Sharp claims that the cameras were installed solely to find the culprit of the missing drugs — a sedative called Propofol — there are discrepancies in the hospital’s version of events.
According to the legal documents filed by Goddard on behalf of her clients, the hospital continued to film for two months after they had identified the doctor, anesthesiologist Adam Dorin, who they claimed stole the drugs. The hospital confronted Dorin in April 2013, after recording 15 incidents in which he put drugs in his pocket between September 2002 and March 2013. Filming continued, though, for several months after the confrontation, according to a 2017 deposition of Sharp’s Director of Security Raymond Albright. Albright said that there was no purpose to continue recording women at that point.
“If they worry about their patients, why would they let the doctor abusing drugs continue to give patients the anesthesia? Can you imagine the conversation with a patient: ‘we think your doctor might be stealing your drug?'” Goddard said.
The Medical Board of California ultimately dropped its charges against Dorin in 2016. Duane Admire, Dorin’s attorney during that case, told INSIDER that the video clips exonerated his client: not only did they show other doctors removing medication from the drug carts, he said they also included footage of Dorin placing the drugs back on the cart after using them to treat patients.
Other anesthesiologists have claimed that it was common for staff to take drugs, like Propofol, to complete their surgeries, due to a national drug shortage at the time. Patrick Sullivan, an anesthesiologist who worked at Sharp, has spoken out about how doctors took drugs from the carts at the Women’s Center to use in other parts of the hospital. According to exhibits filed in the case, only four vials of Propofol went missing between May and September 2012. (The same exhibit indicates a total of 54 vials disappeared during the same time period, but an itemized list of the missing medicine seems to add up to just 53 vials.)
Admire told INSIDER that he believes the hospital deliberately targeted Dorin because he acted as a whistleblower in a malpractice case that he said ultimately cost the hospital a hefty sum. Dorin resigned from the hospital in October 2013.
Sharp Healthcare put out a statement in 2016 that they were “pleased” with the Medical Board of California’s decision regarding Dorin, adding that “we are confident that the Board conducted a thorough evaluation and support their decision on this matter.” Yet, in last week’s statement, the hospital stood by its story that the cameras were used to identify employees stealing drugs.
“They made it sound like they caught a drug thief, which is just not true,” Admire said.
Sullivan, the anesthesiologist, complained during his tenure at Sharp about the use of cameras in operating rooms. After Sharp refused to remove the cameras, he said that he began to cover the lenses with tape before performing procedures. In a statement drafted by his attorney, Sullivan claimed he left the hospital in 2016 after allegedly facing retaliation for complaining about the use of cameras in the operating rooms. Sullivan’s 2017 wrongful-termination lawsuit against his former employer remains ongoing.
Albright, the hospital’s director of security, said in the 2017 deposition that Michele Tarbet, the former CEO of Sharp Grossmont Hospital, who died in 2014, directed him to place the cameras in the operating rooms.
“I never used — would put any type of surveillance in a patient care area in that context… so that’s what I discussed with [Tarbet],” Albright said. “And she told me there are no issues. Because people sign a waiver when they go in there. And so that was — that was my discussion with her.”
But Brandt said that she was never made aware of cameras in the operating room.
INSIDER reached out to Sharp about these specific concerns. John Cihomsky, Vice President of Public Relations and Communications at Sharp HealthCare, referred INSIDER to an article from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Dan Gross, Sharp’s executive vice president of hospital operations, told the newspaper that the intent was never to record patients, and that it was always about monitoring personnel who were accessing medication in the anesthesia carts. He added that the hospital has since changed its video policy so that cameras can never be placed where patients receive treatment.
Cihomsky told INSIDER that as an active legal matter, they are unable to answer other questions at this time.
Allegations of shoddy handling of the videos
Goddard’s lawsuit also targets the way that Sharp handled the video recordings of these women. The recent complaint alleges that the hospital was “grossly negligent in maintaining the recordings,” adding that, “the recordings were stored on desktop computers that could be accessed by multiple users, some without the need for a password. Sharp did not log or track who accessed the recordings, why, or when.”
A male member of Sharp’s security staff said in a November 2016 deposition that, “I could see the patient’s faces when they came in and when they left. On some of the videos I could see the backside, buttocks area as they’re getting onto the tables briefly. I could see the backside sometimes on a video when the anesthesia may be given an injection into the back. I could see the left arm with the IV… I saw babies after the birth.”
Sharp told the court that it “deleted all videos taken prior to February 2013 that were irrelevant to its investigation into missing Propofol.” However, a Sharp employee responsible for handling IT issues related to the recordings testified at a deposition that he could not recall deleting any of the videos.
“There was no written protocols governing how the files would be used… [the IT employee] was treating it like the most innocuous Word document, I mean they did not take any special care with these files,” Goddard told INSIDER. “It’s what our clients have to live with everyday knowing that these files were not treated with respect, were not treated with confidentiality, and that because of that they could have been accessed by people who should never have seen them.”
Gross, the executive vice president, told the Union-Tribune that the hospital has protected the video files since it became clear that they contained sensitive information. “We have kept this tight since 2013,” he said. “The current videos in our possession are kept in a secured vault within the security department at Sharp Healthcare.”
Brandt’s life has changed dramatically — most notably, she and her husband are now the proud parents of two daughters.
“They are extremely feisty,” Brandt said with a laugh. “I love watching them grow and learn. I think that’s so amazing to just watch these tiny people develop personalities and learn new things every day.”
She said she first learned of the secret video recordings after receiving a letter in the mail in January about the incident. “I was totally shocked. I was shocked and I was very angry… it brought up very sad memories for me,” Brandt told INSIDER. “My trust has gone down significantly. Now I look back and I say I can’t believe how much trust I put in that hospital.”
Sharp refused to provide Goddard with the contact information of the women they recorded, citing privacy concerns, but the court allowed the hospital to provide the information to a third party who would then notify women of the situation via mail. Godard told INSIDER she is concerned that women may not have paid attention to, or fully understood, those notices.
Gross told the Union-Tribune that the health system has so far notified 1,788 patients to let them know they were recorded during procedures.
In the wake of the incident, Goddard said that she knows of at least one client who has avoided going to the doctor because she’s lost her faith in the medical system. She added that while she knows of an incident in which a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins secretly photographed and videotaped women’s bodies in the examining room with a pen-like camera he wore around his neck, she’s never heard of a hospital green-lighting secret recordings in operating rooms, with the highest levels of management aware of what was going on.
While both of Brandt’s daughters were born at Sharp, Brandt told INSIDER that she never would have chosen that hospital had she known about the recordings. She says she feels comforted by the fact that other women have chosen to stand up, like her, and tell the world that what happened to them is not okay.
“This can never happen again. What they did significantly impacted the lives of many, many women,” Brandt told INSIDER. “The hospital needs to be accountable for what they’ve done and take responsibility.”