Eugene surgeon Scott Russi had an illustrious career until he took a job at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Eugene clinic.
Russi had served 29 years active duty in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a colonel. He was deployed four times as a combat surgeon and once as a hospital commander. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired in 2013 and moved to Oregon, taking a job as a trauma surgeon at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, and working his way up to trauma medical director. He was the on-call surgeon on Oct. 1, 2015, the day three of the students injured in the Umpqua Community College shooting were brought in to Sacred Heart.
Russi began working once a week at the VA’s Eugene clinic in January this year. On July 23, he moved up to full time. A week later he was informed by a supervisor at a coffee shop that he was going to be fired.
“I still don’t understand why it happened. It just is boggling my mind,” Russi said.
Russi reached out to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, writing a letter in which he said what he thought would be his dream job had become a nightmare. DeFazio made Russi’s case the centerpiece of an impassioned speech on the U.S. House floor Thursday in favor of whistle-blower protections.
Russi told The News-Review Thursday he took the job because he just wanted to help out veterans. Thanks to the VA, he said, he’s not just out of a job, but his career has been ruined. The VA declined to comment, citing privacy regulations about personnel issues.
Russi said he believes he was fired for standing up to the VA’s chief of surgery. If so, he’s not the first. Surgeon Philo Calhoun was demoted in 2014 after complaining of the same doctor’s outdated colonoscopy methods. Calhoun was later vindicated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in testimony before Congress, and subsequently moved to the Portland VA.
Russi said when he came on full-time July 23, he had signed a contract for a salary of $385,000, but it was dropped to $280,000. He challenged the chief of surgery, who had recruited him, about that, and also about a surgical procedure the chief of surgery performed. He said the chief of surgery retaliated against him after that.
On the following Friday Russi met the surgery chief and another doctor, a cardiologist, at a Starbuck’s coffee shop near the Gateway Mall in Springfield. There, he was told he would not be allowed to see patients anymore.
The surgery chief cited four cases in which Russi’s work had allegedly been questioned through a secret peer review. Russi said he wasn’t provided details about the alleged problems.
He was told he was going to be fired, and reported to the National Practitioner Database. Being added to that database would mean he’d never find work as a surgeon again, Russi said.
Monday, July 31, he was handed a letter saying his VA privileges were suspended. Soon after that, he was fired. He still wasn’t sure why. He’s since determined what the alleged problems in the four cases were, but he disputes the VA’s assertions that he mismanaged them.
Russi said he supports the whistle-blower act the House approved Thursday, because it provides that supervisors who retaliate against whistle-blowers more than once be fired.
He said he was a whistle-blower and because of that, the VA has ruined his reputation, his career and his finances.
“This has been the worst thing in my entire life,” Russi said. “I came to the VA to help vets and my career is over.”