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Immunity deal dims spine surgeon’s shining passion for medicine

John Thalgott’s passion for medicine started early.

As a junior high student, he logged 1,000 hours as an unpaid emergency room volunteer at Sunrise Hospital. When other 16-year-olds at Clark High were getting their driver’s licenses, Thalgott was getting a sheriff’s card and spending his free hours as an emergency room orderly at Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital (now UMC).

Through his formal medical education and postgraduate training, through his authorship of numerous papers and texts, his professional oral presentations, faculty positions and lectures, as well as his own research and development of breakthrough devices, this orthopedic spine surgeon has traveled the globe in pursuit of his passion. He has lectured from Frankfurt to Shanghai, Cleveland to Zurich.

At age 55, Thalgott’s professional resume is 37 pages long.

“I’ve spent my whole life doing one thing and one thing only,” he says.

In our recent interview, I notice Thalgott hasn’t added his testimony in the trial of personal injury attorney Noel Gage to his impressive curriculum vitae.

Try as I might, I couldn’t understand why Thalgott wanted to speak with me. I’d unrepentantly pounded on him in my column because I thought he wasn’t being candid about why he signed an immunity agreement, paid former patient Melodie Simon $1.5 million, and testified about an alleged conspiracy hatched with Gage to deprive his paraplegic client of his “honest services.”

Thalgott says one of his biggest mistakes was relying on his longtime friend and fellow spine surgeon, Dr. Mark Kabins, to arrange a meeting with Gage associate and medical consultant Howard Awand in hopes of saving the doctors from a costly malpractice lawsuit in the Simon case. Simon was left paralyzed following spinal surgery complications. Thalgott testified that, in exchange for Gage giving the surgeons a pass, the surgeons would steer lucrative future cases the lawyer’s way.

Thalgott’s recollection of the meeting was a key element in the government’s thus far unsuccessful case against Gage. The trial ended with the jury deadlocked, and Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush dismissed all charges. The dismissal is under appeal.

Thalgott and surgeon Benjamin Venger signed immunity agreements and agreed to testify against Gage. Both admitted they were involved in meetings with Awand that, according to the government, furthered a criminal conspiracy.

At a time he should be enjoying the bountiful fruits of his professional labor, or better still operating on some of the approximately 400 patients he takes to surgery each year, Thalgott is standing in an office pleading his case to a skeptic.

That’s one of the many shames of the ongoing federal investigation into allegations of criminal complicity between local doctors and lawyers. We’re not talking about a gaggle of knuckle-dragging thugs here. In Thalgott’s case, we’re talking about a highly respected member of his profession and a man with all-world credentials.

In our brief time together, Thalgott’s passion for his profession is incandescent. I kept thinking of that as he explained how none of his actions damaged Simon, and that he didn’t realize there was anything wrong with meeting with Awand, a representative of an opposing attorney and a friend of Kabins. After listening to Thalgott, I was impressed by him but remained skeptical of his story.

But what about his immunity agreement? What about the $1.5 million he handed to Simon?

Just doing the ethical and morally responsible thing, he says.

“I couldn’t make her walk again, but I could help her family,” he says. He pauses, goes on a medical tangent, then returns to the woman now in a wheelchair. “You live with this every single second of your personal life.”

I begin to believe he’s being candid. I also realize he was smart to save himself from possible criminal and civil headaches by signing the immunity deal and cutting the check. Trouble with immunity deals is they’re hard to spin.

Stuck with a slow-learner in me, Thalgott shrugs and adds, “I didn’t realize I was going to be a witness. I didn’t have a clue.”

He pulls out a marker board and sketches a spinal column. For much of our interview, he focuses on the basic areas of concern during Simon’s surgery and post-operative treatment. He appears most comfortable as the gifted teacher. His passion brims with brilliance.

A surgeon accustomed to keeping his hands clean, John Thalgott finds himself mired in the middle of a very dirty business.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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