CINCINNATI – Nobody has accused Crystal Pierce of committing a crime. On the contrary, the 33-year-old mother of two says, she has been an innocent, suffering victim in the five years since Dr. Atiq Durrani operated on her spine.
So why, she wondered as she sat still in a courtroom for five days last week, unable to turn her head, was she being victimized again?
First came the severe physical pain following her surgery in 2009, then the emotional pain from not being able to maintain her lifestyle as a mother, wife and wage earner and having to quit her job and endure the financial problems that followed. Then came another doctor’s word that she has a permanent injury and, most recently, fears that she may be susceptible to cancer because of a bone-growth protein implanted during the surgery.
Even after going through that, Pierce wasn’t prepared to hear the testimony from Durrani and his defense. She wasn’t prepared to hear them call her a liar, though not directly, not in those words.
“It’s hard to listen to that without saying anything. What they’re saying isn’t true,” Pierce told WCPO during a break in Friday’s testimony.
“It’s aggravating. What I put on paper is what I said. And Durrani’s not here to say what he said.”
In her suit and her testimony, Pierce claimed that Durrani told her she would be “paralyzed” if he didn’t perform emergency surgery on her after he examined her in January, 2009.
Her frustration rose Friday when a defense witness – a neurosurgeon and medical ethicist - said that’s probably not what Durrani said, or that Pierce misunderstood him if he used the “P” word at all.
“It’s human nature. That’s what’s memorable,” he said.
Her frustration rose again when Durrani’s deposition was read in his absence Friday afternoon.
Durrani fled the country last month, according to the U.S. Attorney. A warrant is out for Durrani's arrest.
In his 2011 deposition, Durrani denied telling Pierce she could be “paralyzed” without surgery. In the worst-case scenario, she could have lost total use of her right hand, he said he told her.
Pierce scoffed at that Friday.
“I was in the office with him – myself and a couple of nurses,” Pierce said. “He would point to the MRI and talk and I asked him to explain it on my level. The way I heard it was, I was going to be paralyzed from the waist down.”
Pierce’s case is the first of 175 malpractice suits against the indicted Mason spine surgeon to go to trial. Attorney Eric Deters' lawsuits and a 36-count federal indictment claim Durrani performed unnecessary surgeries and botched many of them, leaving patients worse off.
RELATED: Read Pierce’s lawsuit
Pierce said Durrani made another misstatement in his deposition when he said he referred her to Dr. Carl Shapiro, who treated her for pain after Durrani’s surgery.
“My friend who worked for Dr. Shapiro referred me to him, not Dr. Durrani,” she said.
Pierce first had surgery in 2007 for a herniated disc, but by January, 2009, she had neck pain that shot down her right arm and numbness in her fingers, she said. She went back to her original surgeon, Dr. Paul Cohen of the Mayfield Clinic, and he recommended non-surgical treatment.
“Physical therapy and an epidural,” Pierce said.
She had the epidural, she said, but decided to get a second opinion.
Pierce said she went to Durrani because he had operated on her mother-in-law the previous year.
“She said the (spinal) fusion he did was great,” Pierce said.
Pierce said Durrani’s first surgery on her, on Jan. 28, 2009, relieved her pain.
“I felt fine,” she said Friday. “The numbness was gone.”
Pierce said she asked Durrani why she still needed a second surgery.
“He said, ‘We still have to continue with the second surgery because that’s what could make you paralyzed.’
“From Cohen’s recommendation to what Durrani said, if he had said, ‘I believe you should still have another surgery,’ I might have gotten another opinion,” Pierce said.
The second surgery was a disaster, she said.
Another spine surgeon, Dr. Keith Wilkey of St. Louis, testified Thursday that Durrani "malpositioned" five plates and at least 10 screws in the second operation, causing pressure around Pierce's spinal cord and leading to severe pain and permanent injury.
In addition, Wilkey said Durrani used a commercial bone growth protein, INFUSE, in his first surgery on Pierce even though the North American Spine Society had “specifically warned against it in the type of surgery Dr. Durrani performed.”
By 2009, studies had determined that INFUSE could cause too much bone growth and swelling, Wilkey said.
Furthermore, Durrani didn’t tell Pierce he was going to use it or get her written consent, Pierce said.
By 2013, studies found INFUSE could increase the risk of cancer, Wilkey said.
“It’s hard. It’s something
my family has had to deal with it,” Pierce said about worrying she might get cancer on top of her other physical problems.
“My grandmother died of cancer. My aunt had it. To know that and to know I’ll have to be monitored constantly for the rest of my life … “
In his deposition, Durrani said he is “wealthy” and challenged Deters’ suggestion that the reason he operated on Pierce a second time was the money.
“I honestly don’t know why he insisted. That’s still a question I ask myself,” Pierce said. “Maybe it was the money, but I don’t want to judge anybody like that. I don’t know why he did it.”
Pierce said she didn’t sue for the money.
“I just want justice for me and the others. No amount of money can take my pain away,” she said.
And she wishes she could have her health back – to get her job back at the IRS, to be able to play with her kids, ages 11 and 8.
“I used to work every day, take care of the kids, do the laundry and the cooking. Now I spend 95 percent of my time lying in bed,” Pierce said.
Deters said he plans to file another 230 suits against Durrani by the end of February. Trials are already scheduled in Hamilton County into 2015 with 14 judges assigned cases.
Durrani's criminal trial is scheduled to begin in August.
The government charged Durrani with billing insurers millions of dollars for fraudulent services. The federal charges carry a potential prison sentence of up to 125 years. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of any proceeds Durrani received as a result of his alleged scheme.
RELATED: Read the indictment.
Durrani was also stripped of his licenses in Ohio and Kentucky.
Durrani professed his innocence in an exclusive interview with WCPO's Tom McKee last August.
Durrani had owned a private practice called the Centers for Advanced Spine Technologies (CAST) with offices in Evendale and Florence. But the phones have been disconnected and the website has been taken down.
Durrani most recently performed surgeries at JourneyLite in Evendale, where he was part owner.
Between 2007 and 2013, Durrani performed surgery at West Chester Hospital UC Health, Children's Hospital, Good Samaritan, Christ and Deaconess, but he no longer had privileges at any of those hospitals as of June, 2013, the indictment says.
Jurors will continue deliberating the case Tuesday.