Willis had her surgery in Portland’s Slabtown neighborhood at the Futures Surgical Center on Northwest Kearney Street. The lobby features tasteful Japanese art and furnishings.
During her operation July 9, 2009, Willis says something curious happened. A staffer asked her friends waiting in the lobby if Willis had AIDS or hepatitis. The staffer said they wanted to know because “one of the doctors” had been cut during the surgery.
That was odd, Willis contends, because she was told that only her physician, Dr. Tuan Nguyen, and his partner would be performing the operation.
Later, Willis developed a painful infection, and she has extensive scarring on her breasts and abdomen, as confirmed by photos she provided to WW.
Willis, 42, says Nguyen told her that too much flesh was cut away during the operation. And she later learned from the clinic’s staff something that shocked her: Nguyen hadn’t done her surgery alone—he had allowed students from Oregon Health & Science University to operate on her.
Willis says she had no idea OHSU students would take part in her operation. Last month, Willis filed suit against Nguyen in Multnomah County Circuit Court for negligence, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She wants $522,000—including the $10,000 she says it will cost her for corrective surgery, and $500,000 for both physical and emotional suffering.
“The scars are deep on the outside and much deeper on the inside,” Willis says. “My self-esteem is completely gone.”
Nguyen did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
The case highlights the potential risks of medical students taking part in operations—a crucial part of their education.
All medical students practice under the supervision of licensed physicians, says Dr. Henry Sondheimer, senior director of admissions at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. He says the supervising doctor must determine which procedures each student is capable of handling—including surgery.
OHSU, like many medical schools, insures its students for liability, but Sondheimer says the doctor supervising them is held responsible if anything goes wrong.
“They’re not doctors. They’re not in a position to practice,” Sondheimer says. “The physician is responsible.”
In her lawsuit, Willis claims Nguyen had told her before the operation that he teaches at OHSU. Elisa Williams, a spokeswoman for the school, confirms that Nguyen is an affiliate assistant professor—a volunteer faculty member who provides clinical training for students.
Williams declined to answer other questions for this story.
At WW’s request, officials at OHSU went through its records for the past 10 years to look for cases where students have been sued for negligence. The school couldn’t find any.
“Medical students basically do not get sued because they are not making independent decisions,” Sondheimer says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Nguyen’s main office is at Lake Oswego Plastic Surgery, but his staff confirms that he also performs operations at the Northwest Portland clinic. In March, Nguyen’s insurer settled for an undisclosed sum with a man who sued him for a botched carpal-tunnel operation.
Willis consented before the operation to have her surgery videotaped for teaching purposes. After the infection set in, Willis says she requested a complete copy of her medical records and the video, but Nguyen refused to provide them. “She was there, but she was unconscious,” says her attorney, Michael Smith. “Everything that she learned about what happened came from people telling her afterward.”
If it’s true—as Willis contends—that she was never informed students would be involved, Sondheimer says it would be unusual.
“A person should be informed by their physician of who is on the team,” Sondheimer says. “Whoever is in there should be revealed.”