Page 2 of 3
The matter of Dr. David Kuntz continues
"I went and saw that little guy [Dr. Kuntz], and he said, 'I'll see you in Hazelton hospital tomorrow. I'll have you on your feet again.' I woke up feeling so good, I jumped right out of bed. They came looking for me, and I said, 'I'm going home.' It was like someone gave me a new life."
Twenty years later, Mr. Hamblin, still "100%," has his own drilling and blasting company and "is just a-givin' 'er." What he found mysterious, however, was the way in which he was later treated by three doctors with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC).
"I was suing someone over the car accident, and ICBC said they wanted to know what was ailing me," recounts Mr. Hamblin. "They sent me to three Vancouver doctors...during their tests I ended up on the epileptic ward in a straitjacket because I reacted to the dye they put in my back.
When I recovered," he continues in a tone of incredulity, "they told me I should sue Dr. Kuntz because he had no business using his method on me, and the discs wouldn't last 10 years. I said, 'How the hell do you sue a man who's done such wonderful work?' But I know that most people who are told, 'Sue this man,' probably would. I know one guy who sued him and got over $100,000, and he's in fine shape."
In 1981 two Vancouver doctors came north to investigate Dr. Kuntz's practice and discovered the doctor repairing people with a prefabricated disc he made himself from methyl methacrylate.
He had implanted these discs in more than 100 people, who then required only three-and-a-half days in hospital against the usual eight. (They also recovered in six weeks, compared to the usual six months.)
Appalled, the Vancouver doctors recommended an immediate moratorium on the procedure. Dr. Kuntz ignored it. Neither his patients nor their doctors had ever complained about the results, he said, "and my primary obligation was to my patients, not to these old retiring guys who were out of date."
He continued for another five years before an inquiry headed by a former professor found he had "insufficient skill and knowledge" to practise medicine in British Columbia. He was notified in August 1986 that he was suspended.
In the appeal process, he says he was denied access to the files upon which the decision was based because they had been reportedly lost.
More than a decade later, the case is roaring on. In April, Alliance MP Darrel Stinson presented before the House of Commons a petition by Dr. Kuntz's patients calling on Parliament to reinforce the federal Supreme Court Act.
It refers to the fact that Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in 1990 sat in judgment a second time on the same case (Kuntz v. WCB) she had heard in 1988 as a panelist for the B.C. Court of Appeal.
Attorney General Martin Cauchon responded in writing to the petition: "A judge who knowingly assumes jurisdiction in a case in which he or she has directly participated in a lower court, either as judge or as counsel, would offend against the long-held requirement of judicial impartiality."
However, he made no promise to pursue it, and how Dr. Kuntz can bring enough pressure to bear on Parliament is not clear.
Still, he intends to try. "First I will be asking Parliament to impeach the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, for violating Section 28(1) of the Federal Supreme Court Act [against judging the merits of one's own ruling on appeal]. Then I will be asking Parliament to invoke Section 33 of the Canadian.
Charter of Rights and Freedoms which allows it to overrule the judges whenever the judges have erred in their interpretation of the Charter."
Yet it all began so simply, and so very, very long ago. Dr. Kuntz grew up in northern Quebec at Malartic, where as a boy he trapped in the bush and discovered an interest in anatomy. He graduated in medicine from the University of Toronto and did a four-year residency at UBC.
He then built a successful surgical practice in northern B.C., bought a ranch, and then the trouble began.
He remembers piloting his helicopter home late on the night of May 17, 1979, after his first peer review by the college.
Unbeknownst to him, his former professor, Dr. F.P. Patterson, had recommended he be told to take retraining. That same professor would later tell a lawyer "He [Dr. Kuntz] is to be crushed."
He was heading up the Skeena River, "the River of the Mists," the only fixed landmark to guide by, heading for his ranch deep in the valley of the Kispiox.
During the nine years he had been doing joint replacements, he had been waiting for someone to invent an artificial spinal disc.
Reflecting on the bewildered questions his examiners had posed regarding his surgical practice, it struck him.
"My God, I've done 400 necks alone; I have more experience than anyone in Canada with bone graft fusion. I'm a leader in the field. It's up to me!" As he flew along the Kispiox, he pondered the technical problems of designing a plastic disc that could be locked into the vertebrae.
"The sun was setting behind jagged mountain ridges," he recalls, "and the clouds were spilling over them. And then I thought, 'That's how I'll lock it in. With ridges. Bone will grow into the ridges of an implant, just like mist spilling over the mountains and lock it in for life!'"
Suddenly he realized there was only one light as a landmark in his valley up ahead.
"My heart was pumping, I'd never landed in the dark. I vowed that if I got it down safely I'd start working on that disc. It was pitch black. I was gliding over the beaver pond, but I couldn't make out the ground; just then a beaver broke the water and the ripples allowed me to see. I landed safely and as I tied the blade down, I thought, 'I'm going to do it.'"
The next day he sat down on his porch and started to whittle, something he was used to.
"I had shaped a lot of grafts from bone harvested from peoples' hips."
Once he had the wooden form, he talked a dentist into showing him how to make dental moulds, formed the disc with methyl methacrylate, and was in business. A friend who required neck surgery volunteered to be the first patient.
"I told him this would do away with the incision at the hip necessary for a bone graft, but if there was a problem with the disc, I could always replace it with a bone graft from the hip."
The young man awoke from surgery ready to go home. "I made him stay another day, but coming home with me, he was able to fly the helicopter! I never looked back."
By 1982 Dr. Kuntz held international patents on the disc; all subsequent patents on preformed discs have named his as the "mother" patent, signifying a breakthrough in thinking at that point.
Previously the molten acrylic had been poured into the patient's spine, to be held in place by ligaments until it solidified, but always with the concern it would flow into harmful areas.
Worth millions today, the patents have long since been lost to him through bankruptcy.
In a sworn affidavit, patient Karin Hanhart described the "general cry of disbelief and outrage throughout the north at the actions of the College of Physicians and Surgeons" when Dr. Kuntz was suspended in 1986.
She explains, "There was a great discrepancy between the perception of Dr. Kuntz by the college who suspended him for 'insufficient skill and knowledge' and how he was perceived by northerners and their referring doctors. The patients virtually unanimously saw him as a highly skilled surgeon solving problems that southern surgeons had failed to solve."
In a survey which Mrs. Hanhart has called "perhaps the first-ever patient-organized survey of a doctor's results by patients untainted by doctor-bias in assessing results," it was found that 99% of 396 patients were either satisfied or very satisfied with the results of Dr. Kuntz's surgery.
"Compared to the average success rate of orthopedic surgery, which is 65%, we cannot see how Dr. Kuntz can be declared unskilled and incompetent," she declared in a sworn affidavit.
"We suspected the answer could only lie in what we have heard described as professional jealousy, for we, his patients, could never accept that he did not have the exceptional skill and knowledge for which we sought him out. The results speak for themselves."
Much to her surprise, too, she learned that Dr. Kuntz had been criticized for doing surgery on six of the patients who turned up on her random survey.
"All six were very pleased when they were located, and most had WCB claims that had been, or were still, under appeal. None of them indicated that they had given the WCB permission to complain about Dr. Kuntz's care of them, for all were happy. I was shocked to find that the names of some of these patients had been used to remove Dr. Kuntz; they certainly weren't complaining when we did our survey which was after their cases had already been used without their knowledge to suspend Dr. Kuntz."
The registrar of the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Morris VanAndel, counters that "Licensure is not a popularity survey, it is based on certain qualifications. Dr. Kuntz failed an in-depth review of skill and knowledge. The main determining fact was he was unable to convince three experts in the field of orthopedic medicine. He has been alleging all kinds of wrongdoing ever since, but the college decision has been supported many times, and he has exhausted most avenues of appeal."
There certainly were some dissatisfied patients, but after 20 years they are difficult to track down to interview. Quicklaw legal databases list five malpractice judgments against him, which is high even for a doctor. Dr. Kuntz shrugs off such losses as motivated more by medical politics than medical merit.
"He ticked off his peers," recalls one colleague. Another wrote at the time, "It is my opinion to some degree his future depends on whether the man will taste humility and leave his greatness to the posterity of his procedure."
Anesthetist Andre Pasquet of Hazelton, B.C., wrote in the late 1980s, "In my view, there was only one item which really could be, perhaps, partly valid, and that was to the effect that Dr. Kuntz was somehow not an easy person to get along with...His technical surgical ability is superb. He always seemed to know what should be done. As one of the other physicians at Winch Hospital once said to me, 'You know, David Kuntz seems to have a sixth sense telling him what is the best way to solve an orthopedic problem.' I had to agree."
Dr. Peter Newberry, director of UBC's post-graduate training program in family medicine, worked closely with Dr. Kuntz for six years.
"It was unusual to find a physician with his dedication to rural service, being on call 24/7. The problem was that he was very innovative, particularly in neck procedures and relief of nerve pressure. But innovation requires research to affirm that it is valuable, not harmful.
David wasn't prepared to take time from his practice to do the necessary formal research. There were a couple of lawsuits, and the college just said, 'That's enough.' The college wanted proof of procedure. There have been many instances in the history of medicine where brand new breakthroughs were found to be a disaster in the long term."