Originally created 02/28/04

Heart, lung surgeon sues MCG



Mark and Lynn Anstadt found a good life in Augusta - perhaps the best kind of life the city has to offer.

Dr. Anstadt is a heart and lung surgeon at Medical College of Georgia Hospital. They have an elegant home on Walton Way. The couple, who moved here from Houston, have come to love the people and the refined pace of this deep South city.

But now it's all unraveling on them. The Anstadts say it's not because of anything they've done, but because Dr. Anstadt also is a soldier, and the nation is at war.

Dr. Anstadt, 43, is a lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserve's Houston-based 4005th U.S. Army Hospital. Just before the Iraq war was launched, he went on active duty.

He never deployed, but spent three months filling in for Army surgeons who went overseas. From mid-March through mid-June 2003, he performed surgeries and trained residents at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

While he was on duty, Dr. Anstadt said, he was told his MCG contract wouldn't be renewed in 2004.

When he returned to Augusta, the school pulled his research funds, cut him off from his patients and effectively stopped allowing him to perform heart surgeries, Dr. Anstadt alleges.

"After I got deployed, everything changed the tone, the attitude of the people," he said. "It's just too coincidental to me."

In a federal civil suit against MCG, Dr. Anstadt alleges that MCG is discriminating against him because of his military service, violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The law is designed to guarantee activated reservists go back to the civilian jobs they leave.

The lawsuit, filed Friday, seeks to have his contract renewed, plus an unspecified sum for punitive damages, mental anguish and attorneys' fees.

Clay Steadman, the vice president of legal affairs for MCG, said Friday he hadn't seen the suit and couldn't comment on it. However, he said he is familiar with Dr. Anstadt's allegations, and MCG has been told by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor that it broke no laws.

The school isn't firing Dr. Anstadt, Mr. Steadman said, it's just not renewing his contract. It ends in June, a year after he came off active duty. The federal law prohibits employers from firing reservists within six months of the date their service ends.

Mr. Steadman said he does not believe the surgeon has been treated differently because of his military service.

"If I thought there was any inkling that what we did was wrong, we wouldn't be doing it," Mr. Steadman said.

Dr. Anstadt said being told his contract won't be renewed is, in the realm of academic medicine, the same thing as being fired. He and his wife believe MCG's upper managers consider him a liability because he could be activated again or deployed, and they're pushing him out as the health system commits $25 million to jolt its heart program.

Before he was activated, Dr. Anstadt said, he was led to believe he would be on board for the future.

"If this can happen to a physician, this law has no meaning," Dr. Anstadt said.

The suit also names Kevin Landolfo, MCG's chief of cardiothoracic surgery.

The Anstadts said they didn't want this dispute to lead to a lawsuit. They said they hired an attorney to negotiate a resolution, but MCG wouldn't budge.

The lawsuit says when Dr. Anstadt came to MCG in 2000, the Thoracic Surgery Section was on probation and in danger of losing its accreditation. Under his leadership as interim chief, the section was removed from probation and achieved full accreditation, the suit says.

Dr. Anstadt said he has had trouble finding a new job, partly because the school has cut him off from surgeries and he has little to show for the past year. When his contract ends, he may go into private practice, but that would be difficult to manage if he is called up again, he said.

"It's devastating," said Mrs. Anstadt, 40. "Everything is different. We have to leave a place we love, and it's not the Walton Way home, it's the community."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.