Marquita Baird keeps a boot box on the top shelf of a closet in her home in Shawnee, Oklahoma, outside Oklahoma City. Among its contents are 590 pages of doctor’s notes, court records and detailed nurse logs that tell the story of what happened after an OB-GYN named Thomas J. Byrne performed surgery on her more than 20 years ago.
“I held onto these records all this time,” Baird said. “I always knew somebody somewhere was going to get in touch with me someday because of what he did to me.”
Baird was 37 years old in 1999, when she went to see Byrne at a rural hospital called Seminole Medical Center after she’d been diagnosed with a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome. Her ovaries were covered in cysts.
“The only answer they had was to do a hysterectomy,” Baird said.
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Byrne removed her uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, and conducted an operation to address a vaginal hernia. In his medical notes, which were reviewed by Gothamist, Byrne initially stated he was “concerned about injury to the bladder or ureters” but later wrote that there were no operative complications following the surgery. Baird was discharged after three days in the hospital.
But she returned the very next day because her abdominal wall was swelling.
“Everything was swollen,” Baird said. “I was in so much pain and bleeding and bleeding. I couldn't pee.”
In the weeks that followed, another doctor — a urologist at another hospital — determined that one of her ureters and bladder had been injured, causing urine to leak into her abdomen. A medical record dated roughly two weeks after her surgery noted that she’d gained 18 pounds in just 11 days.
“I was quite frankly, peeing into my stomach,” Baird recalled. “I looked like I was nine months pregnant.”
Nearly a decade earlier, Byrne had been practicing roughly 1,200 miles from Seminole in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, near Rochester. In 1991, New York revoked his medical license after it investigated a string of bad outcomes involving his patients, including three babies who died shortly after birth and two who suffered severe brain damage. The state health department labeled Byrne an “imminent danger” to patients.
How then had he come to practice in a rural area of Oklahoma? And why — years later — did New York restore his license and allow him to work in the state again?
Gothamist has made repeated attempts to speak with Byrne, including a detailed list of questions sent via certified mail. When reached by phone on two occasions, he hung up when a journalist identified themselves. We also visited his current workplaces in the Bronx and then in Amarillo, Texas, where he was present but refused to meet with the journalist who asked to speak with him.
Public records show Byrne has continued to face allegations that he injured patients since he was stripped of his medical license in New York more than three decades ago. Court documents show he’s been named as a defendant in 23 malpractice lawsuits by former patients across three states. Two incidents occurred at Harlem Hospital after his license was reinstated in New York state in 2014. He’s also faced restrictions on his privileges at other hospitals, including Seminole Medical Center, five years after he treated Baird there.
“I had absolutely no idea what he had done to me,” she said of Byrne.
Baird would need to undergo a series of medical procedures after her hysterectomy, including having stents put in to help urine make it into her bladder. She sued Byrne and the hospital, but according to a letter from her attorneys, which was obtained by Gothamist, they filed a dismissal because she and her husband at the time had not paid their taxes for several years and her lawyers did not think that would look good in front of a jury.
“With every inch of my being I would like to see this man, if he is trying to practice, be dismissed forever,” she said.
Five other women sued Byrne for procedures he performed at Seminole and another nearby hospital over four years, including one patient who alleged he left a “foreign object” in her body. That case settled. The others were ultimately dismissed.
SSM Health, which acquired what was then-called Seminole Medical Center in 2022, declined a request for comment on Byrne's time there.
Byrne eventually left Shawnee. By 2005, he was practicing a few hours away at Craig General Hospital in Vinita, Oklahoma, a small city in a rural area outside Tulsa, where other lawsuits would follow. Records show he would later voluntarily give up specific privileges at Craig General, restricting his ability to conduct the type of surgery he performed on Baird.
Despite those developments, the Oklahoma State Medical Board did not take any disciplinary action against Byrne, raising questions about how physicians are disciplined, investigated and vetted by the only entities that have the power to give or take away their licenses.
‘How did he end up here?’
When Byrne arrived at Craig General almost 20 years ago, Robin Kemp, who was the hospital’s head of nursing at the time, said she was initially “grateful” he was there because it was often difficult for rural hospitals like hers to recruit OB-GYNs and other specialized providers. As a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, Byrne is qualified to treat high-risk patients.
But Kemp said her feelings changed within the first six months of Byrne’s arrival. She’d later be one of several hospital staff members deposed in malpractice lawsuits filed by patients against Byrne and Craig General.
In all, four suits were filed related to procedures Byrne performed within about a year of getting privileges at Craig General. Three settled, including one in which a 21-year-old woman alleged that Byrne had tied her fallopian tubes without her consent during a routine procedure called a diagnostic laparoscopy. She’d been diagnosed with endometriosis, an often painful condition that occurs when tissue lining the uterus grows outside the organ. Court records show Byrne claimed she’d requested it be done and that she’d initialed paperwork authorizing it. She denied both those claims.
“Before this, that would have been extremely out of the ordinary. It was rare,” Kemp said of the number of cases that arose while Byrne was at the hospital.
Saint Francis Health System, which acquired Craig General out of bankruptcy in 2016, said it was not able to comment on events that took place at the hospital before the company took it over.
Kemp also questioned why Oklahoma’s medical board had granted him a license to practice in the state given his history.
“I was angry,” she said. “How did he end up here?”
Medical boards are the traffic cops standing at the intersection of which doctors can come and which have to go in each state. There are 70 medical boards nationwide. Some states have two — one for doctors of medicine, known as MDs, and one for doctors of osteopathic medicine. Boards are also responsible for investigating doctors who may need to be reprimanded. And they have a wide range of disciplinary actions they can take with doctors, such as issuing warning letters and revoking their licenses, as the board in New York state originally decided to do with Byrne.
Byrne first ran afoul of a state medical board in 1983, while practicing as a resident early in his career in North Carolina. An order issued by the state’s Board of Medical Examiners that year found that he’d “intentionally administered ketamine” to a 13-year-old patient, according to Byrne’s own account, “in spite of specific instructions not to use this drug in the circumstances in which it was given.” Ketamine is a common anesthetic that can cause complications when used in the wrong settings. The board also determined that he’d “deliberately falsified the patient’s medical record” by omitting the fact that he’d prescribed and given the person the drug, though Byrne would later claim he made note of the drug after he’d informed his supervisor at the hospital.
The state medical board “officially reprimanded” Byrne for failing “to conform to acceptable and prevailing ethical and professional standards in the practice of medicine,” and warned him that he could lose his medical license in North Carolina if he did anything similar in the future.
New York state’s investigation in the early 1990s found Byrne failed to disclose this discipline when he later applied for a medical license in the Empire State. In addition to finding him guilty of gross negligence and gross incompetence, the health department concluded that he’d obtained his New York license fraudulently by not making the board aware that he’d been reprimanded by North Carolina. “Respondent made a false statement,” the state’s report said of Byrne at the time, “with the intent to deceive.”
North Carolina revoked Byrne’s medical license there in 1992 based on New York’s decision to do the same. Later that year, he obtained a new license in New Mexico, and medical board records from that state show licensing authorities were well aware of Byrne’s track record.
‘You have to hope that they’re all being honest’
In 1993, the New Mexico Medical Board issued a short, two-paragraph letter in reference to Byrne’s application for a medical license in the state. Dr. JoAnn Levitt, the board’s secretary and treasurer at the time, said the board had “thoroughly reviewed all of his records including the complete history of proceedings in New York and North Carolina” before deciding that he “possessed the integrity and competency to practice medicine” in the state.
Amanda Quintana, the current interim executive director of the New Mexico Medical Board, said it was a "surprise" to her that the board decided to grant Byrne a license despite his history.
“I wasn’t around back then,” she said. “This wouldn’t happen currently.”
But when asked about what she thought about the board's 1993 letter, Quintana ended the interview. She later said she would not comment further on Byrne's case.
While executive directors like Quintana are generally responsible for a board’s day-to-day operations, it’s the board members who decide who is granted a medical license and whether to impose discipline on doctors. Board members are typically physicians appointed by a state’s governor or legislature, though this varies from state to state, and most boards also include some members of the public.
This model of doctors overseeing other doctors has come under some criticism over the last several decades.
“There is increased recognition among the public, among the scholarly community and in the legal world, that systems of what are called ‘regulatory capture’ — where the regulated profession is the one that is regulating itself — are not necessarily in the public’s best interest,” said Nadia Sawicki, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago who specializes in health law and medical malpractice.
Sawicki also pointed to a lack of funding as a significant factor in a licensing authority’s ability to vet doctors before allowing them to practice and in disciplining them when problems arise.
“State medical boards are under-resourced and simply don’t have the capacity to do all the investigations that they would like to do,” she said. “Additional state funding of medical licensing boards, I think, would go a long way towards addressing this problem.”
Lyle Kelsey, the Oklahoma medical board’s executive director, said board members take their role “very seriously.”
“They treat other doctors with problems tougher than I’ve thought they would many, many times,” he said. But he admitted that they rely on physicians to be truthful when they apply for medical licenses.
“We license almost 30,000 licensees in 14 different professions,” Kelsey said. “Somewhere you have to hope that they're all being honest when they renew their license and answer questions.”
Kelsey said he started in his current role shortly before Byrne submitted his application for a license and that he remembers the case more than 25 years later.
“There were some questionable things on his application that kind of started our concern about his practice patterns,” Kelsey recalled.
Public records show that Oklahoma was initially more cautious than New Mexico. It denied Byrne a license in 1997. An order filed in September of that year cites the disciplinary actions that had been taken against him in New York and North Carolina.
“These factors raise serious issues as to the applicant’s ability to practice medicine and surgery with reasonable skill and safety,” the board wrote.
But it would reverse that decision just four months later.
Kelsey noted that “denials are pretty rare,” but that so is the kind of about-face that happened in Byrne’s case. Gothamist attempted to contact all of the board members from the time who are still alive to ask them about their decision to grant Byrne a license and to lift the restrictions they had initially placed on him, but none replied.
An order issued by the Oklahoma medical board in 1998 shows it initially required Byrne to adhere to an “agreement” that he be regularly monitored, with other physicians reviewing Byrne’s high-risk cases each month, including cesarean sections and the use of vacuum extractors, tools that are sometimes used to assist vaginal births, among other reporting requirements. But roughly a year later, records show Byrne appeared before the board and requested that those restrictions be lifted.
The board ruled in his favor.
“Applicant presented sufficient evidence that the agreement could be terminated without presenting harm to public safety and welfare,” the board stated in an order that was issued in March 1999, just six months before Marquita Baird underwent the surgery in which she claims Byrne caused her serious injury.
Over the next six years, Byrne would be named as a defendant in nine other malpractice cases stemming from incidents in Oklahoma.