Reading spine surgeon’s plea deal angers woman in wheelchair

After Melodie Simon finished reading page after page of admissions of guilt from her former doctor detailing how he cut deals to dodge being sued by her for malpractice, she looked like she’d been slapped in the face.

“Shame on them,” said the woman in the wheelchair. “Reading this really makes me mad.”

Simon had read about Dr. Mark Kabins pleading guilty to a felony charge of misprision — having knowledge of a felony and not reporting it.

Until our interview Thursday, she had not seen the plea memo signed by the spine surgeon detailing the depth of his betrayal, greed and selfishness.

“I’m shocked,” said Simon, who, like Kabins, is 51.

For years, Simon, a teacher and women’s volleyball coach at Cheyenne High School, has been a paraplegic, unable to walk or feel anything from her sternum down.

Reluctantly, this private woman has become the focus in the case against Kabins, her attorney Noel Gage and consultant Howard Awand.

Her case began with Dr. John Thalgott performing elective back surgery on her Aug. 3, 2000. A spinal fluid leak occurred. He ordered a spinal catheter and left for vacation, placing his partner Kabins in charge.

Dr. Daniel Burkhead, an anesthesiologist, put the catheter in Aug. 4 and removed it Aug. 6.

Simon had further complications and Kabins operated on Aug. 9.

Neither Thalgott or Kabins admitted to malpractice.

Thalgott, however, was the first to admit there was a cover-up. He testified for the government that he and Kabins were so desperate to avoid a malpractice lawsuit that they held a secret meeting with Simon’s attorney and plotted to blame Simon’s condition entirely on Burkhead.

After denying it for years, Kabins now admits:

• He believed Simon could bring a viable lawsuit against him.

• He approached Awand and asked the consultant to persuade Gage not to sue him and Thalgott. When Gage sued the anesthesiologist but not Kabins or Thalgott, Kabins believed it was because Awand referred a lucrative personal injury case to Gage.

• He knew patient referrals by Awand could influence personal injury attorneys’ decisions about who was sued and who got a pass.

• He concealed that he, Thalgott, Gage and Awand held a secret meeting to discuss the Simon case.

• He wrote a letter for Gage’s lawsuit blaming Burkhead, without disclosing the secret meeting.

Simon is not vengeful toward Kabins. She feels sorry for him and understands people make mistakes. But these admissions rise far beyond mere mistakes.

Under the Oct. 30 plea agreement, there won’t be any more charges filed against Kabins that relate to his “business and practice of medicine, his treatment of patients, his testimony or participation in legal cases as either a treating physician or expert witness, or any financial transaction relating to any of the above.”

Essentially, if Kabins cut any previous deals to avoid being sued, or lied in any other malpractice case, he gets a pass from federal prosecutors.

Kabins’ plea bargain says he will be under house arrest for no more than six months and fined no more than $250,000. He will pay Simon $3.5 million.

Simon believed house arrest meant he couldn’t continue working, but that’s not true. Kabins can continue his medical practice, unless the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners steps in.

Simon doesn’t plan to attend Kabins’ sentencing Jan. 15, but she can’t avoid the stress of testifying when Gage and Awand go to trial Feb. 8.

She’s satisfied with the plea agreement and doesn’t believe Kabins deserved prison time. “What would prison do? The shame is enough.”

The shame of his greed and his dishonoring his profession will be attached to Kabins the rest of his life.

May he live to 100.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at

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