John Henries was angry when he heard the news. An OB-GYN named Thomas J. Byrne was practicing in New York again.
“That’s very wrong,” Henries told Gothamist. “I was lied to. I think everyone who was involved in that case was lied to.”
Decades ago, Byrne had been stripped of his medical license in New York due in part to his failure to provide adequate medical care when delivering Henries’ son, Matthew, who was born in 1989 in a small upstate town near Rochester.
Matthew was one of five babies whose births were examined by the New York health department in the early 1990s as part of a state investigation into Byrne’s work as a physician. Three of those infants had died shortly after they were born.
The state health commissioner labeled Byrne an “imminent danger” to patients in 1990. A year later he was found guilty of negligence and incompetence, among other charges, and stripped of his New York medical license.
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After that decision became public, a health department spokesperson told the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper that it would be “very difficult” for Byrne to have his New York license restored. But in 2014, the state’s Board of Regents, which handles licensing decisions, did exactly that.
“It just makes me mad that he could do that and get away with it,” Henries said.
A five-part Gothamist investigation has been exploring how doctors like Byrne can lose their license in one state and continue to practice in others, even as they face additional malpractice lawsuits from patients. Part of the problem is a loophole-ridden national tracking system that patient safety experts say is easily avoided by doctors and hospitals.
Another critical problem is that, in some cases, medical boards lack a robust process for verifying the information provided on applications for medical licenses or license renewals, and instead often rely on physicians to answer questions honestly.
A Gothamist analysis of dozens of Byrne’s applications in states outside New York found multiple instances in which Byrne made a false statement or misrepresented the findings of New York state’s investigation into his conduct and the factors that led to him losing his license.
New York’s education department declined to release Byrne’s full application to restore his medical license in the state. But a 20-page summary of his application obtained by Gothamist through a Freedom of Information Law request shows that Byrne told the New York committee members who were assessing his application that, since losing his New York license, he had “practiced medicine in other states with a valid license without incident.”
That was not true.
In fact, Byrne had been the subject of 11 malpractice lawsuits filed by former patients and their families in New Mexico and Oklahoma, who accused him of negligence that resulted in injuries in the period between the revocation of his New York license and when he filed his application to have it restored. Three additional lawsuits were filed in New Mexico and Oklahoma before New York ultimately decided to restore his license.
His hospital privileges were also restricted at one hospital in Oklahoma and the state initially denied his application for a medical license, which is noted in his public file with the Federation of State Medical Boards.
Since Byrne began practicing again in New York, two additional malpractice claims have been filed against him. Those cases include a baby who was allegedly lacerated during a cesarean section in 2020, and a 34-year-old mother named Amy Lam, who died shortly after giving birth in 2016. Both patients had been under Byrne’s care at Harlem Hospital.
Lam’s husband, Chung Kiu Kwok, filed a formal complaint with New York’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct, or OPMC, earlier this year against Byrne and two other physicians involved in her care. A letter sent to Kwok in September from the OPMC that was reviewed by Gothamist stated that an investigator was reviewing the case.
Byrne has not responded to multiple attempts to reach him for comment, including phone calls, text messages, emails, certified letters and visits to his current work addresses in the Bronx and Amarillo, Texas. He has hung up on journalists when reached by phone. In Texas, a campus police officer at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center where Byrne works informed a Gothamist staff member that Byrne was present but did not wish to speak.
Byrne’s case raises questions about the ability and willingness of state medical boards and hospitals to protect patients by allowing physicians with concerning track records to continue practicing. Some patient safety experts – along with several of Byrne’s former colleagues – say the difficulty of recruiting specialists to underserved, rural areas and urban hospitals that serve low-income populations can incentivize some health care institutions to look the other way when hiring physicians with a history of endangering patients.
"We do not believe that the public would be in any danger if his license is restored to him."
— The New York education department's Committee on the Professions
An analysis of state health department data and information from the federally run National Practitioner Data Bank show that the restoration of medical licenses is rare in New York. Out of more than 3,000 physicians who have either permanently surrendered their licenses or had them revoked in the state since 1990, the data shows that only 17 have had their licenses reinstated.
Keshia Clukey, an education department spokesperson, could not confirm the number, but said the “restoration of a physician’s license definitely is not common.”
The state’s basis for restoring Byrne’s medical license is far from completely transparent. Although Gothamist has a copy of the summary of the board’s decision to restore the license, New York’s education department, which oversees the Board of Regents, denied Gothamist’s request for Byrne’s full restoration application. The summary does not contain information on who submitted affidavits in support of Byrne’s application and does not provide details on exactly what malpractice lawsuits and disciplinary actions he disclosed.
"We believe that Dr. Byrne has presented a compelling case in support of his application for the restoration of his license, and we do not believe that the public would be in any danger if his license is restored to him," the state education department’s Committee on the Professions wrote in its recommendation.
Clukey said Byrne’s case files were confidential under education law. “We cannot discuss or disclose information specific to the investigation into Dr. Byrne’s application for restoration,” she said.
A short life
Matthew Henries survived birth.
Health department records show Byrne used a vacuum extractor 15 times while delivering him. A medical expert for the state later testified that Byrne’s use of the device, which is placed on a baby’s head to assist in delivery, had been “excessive and inappropriate.”
Those same records state that “a crackling sound was heard” as Matthew’s left shoulder came out of the womb.
At Newark-Wayne Community Hospital, in the Finger Lakes area of New York where Matthew was born, staff noted he had “marked molding of the head,” a fractured collarbone and bleeding around the skull, among other injuries. Hours after his birth – three days before Christmas – Matthew was transported in the middle of the night to an advanced neonatal intensive care unit roughly 40 miles away, where doctors determined he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury.
The four other babies included in the state’s investigation into Byrne were taken to the same neonatal unit after he delivered them. Henries recalled that one of the physicians there said he was “sick and tired of seeing Dr. Byrne’s mistakes” and advised him to seek out an attorney.
Matthew “developed a very severe seizure disorder and at one year of life was functioning as a one month old,” the health department concluded.
The state’s medical expert testified that Byrne’s misuse of the vacuum extractor was found to have “caused or contributed” to Matthew’s condition. New York officials concluded Byrne had “failed to meet acceptable standards of medical care” and found him guilty of gross negligence and gross incompetence in Matthew’s delivery.
“He had a diagnosis of cerebral palsy,” John Henries said. “He didn’t talk, really. He would communicate through his eyes.”
Matthew continued to suffer from health complications and died in December 1992, days after his third birthday. He was the fourth child to die among the five babies included in New York state’s investigation into Byrne’s practice as an OB-GYN.
Henries recalled holding his son in his hospital room after he’d passed.
“I sat there and rocked Matthew for about an hour,” he said.
By then, Byrne was practicing elsewhere. Medical board records from New Mexico show he obtained a license there about a month before Matthew’s death.
It’s unclear whether medical boards in New York and other states have been fully aware of Byrne’s track record outside New York after his license was revoked.
Gothamist obtained more than two dozen applications Byrne filed for medical licenses and license renewals since 1983 in three states – Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Carolina – and cross-referenced them with public court records. Byrne’s applications contain at least 16 false statements or factual misrepresentations about specific patient cases included in New York’s investigation.
Many of those false statements include Byrne's failure to disclose malpractice lawsuits or payments and the suspension of hospital privileges in New Mexico and Oklahoma, even though Byrne was specifically asked to detail such incidents on applications.
For example, a 2011 application to renew his medical license in New Mexico asked whether he’d been involved in a medical malpractice judgment or settlement since he’d last renewed his license three years earlier, and to provide details on each claim.
Byrne answered “No.”
But court records show he was named as a defendant in three malpractice lawsuits that settled during that time, including a case in which he was accused of perforating a patient’s colon during a surgery and another alleging he injured one of a patient’s ureters, tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder.
On another application submitted to Oklahoma’s medical board in 2004, Byrne was asked whether he’d withdrawn an application for hospital privileges since he’d last renewed his license. Patient safety experts say doctors sometimes withdraw applications for privileges to avoid being formally denied privileges, which must be reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federally run compendium of data on doctor discipline, malpractice cases and other information.
Byrne answered “No” to the question. However, a record obtained by Gothamist shows that was not true. In a 2004 letter from an attorney representing Byrne at the time, Byrne requested to withdraw his pending application for admitting privileges at a hospital in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
In 2012, Byrne applied to have his medical license reinstated in North Carolina. The had state revoked his license in 1992 in response to New York’s revocation. A copy of the restoration application Byrne submitted in North Carolina shows he misrepresented the facts about several of the cases included in New York’s investigation and what had led him to lose his medical license in New York.
In one instance, Byrne describes Matthew Henries’ birth. He notes that he used a vacuum extractor during the delivery, but he fails to disclose that New York state officials concluded he’d used the vacuum extractor “excessively” in Matthew’s case.
Byrne also states that a CT scan conducted on Matthew after he was born was “normal.” However, the state’s report said the scan showed swelling in Matthew’s brain and bleeding under his scalp.
"The Board urges you to make sure that the conduct giving rise to the Board’s concern does not happen again."
— Public letter of concern about Byrne issued by the North Carolina medical board
In addition, the overall version of events that Byrne provided to the North Carolina board for why New York stripped him of his medical license also does not align with the state’s findings.
“A patient complained about a midwife working in the clinic and the NY state health department came and looked at thousands of charts,” Byrne states in his application. “They found five babies with unexpected outcomes such as seizures, NICU admissions or fetal or neonatal demise. Three cases were questioned for the use of the vacuum extractor which was used rarely at that time in NY.”
“NY revoked my license in 1991 for their words 'fraudulently applying for a license' after reviewing my application for licensing six years earlier,” Byrne told the North Carolina medical board.
What he failed to disclose was that New York state’s full findings that year also declared him guilty of gross negligence, gross incompetence, negligence on more than one occasion, incompetence on more than one occasion and practicing the profession fraudulently. He was also cited not for simply using a vacuum extractor in a state where it was rarely used, but for having used it improperly and injuring three babies in the process.
North Carolina’s medical board restored Byrne’s license in 2016. But it also issued a public letter of concern, concluding that Byrne had “provided care below acceptable and prevailing standards of medical practice” in two cases of alleged malpractice in New Mexico that the North Carolina board had investigated.
“The Board is concerned about your past disciplinary history and the two aforementioned malpractice cases,” North Carolina’s public letter of concern states. “The Board urges you to make sure that the conduct giving rise to the Board’s concern does not happen again.”
Burden of the applicant
New York is one of two states that separates the responsibility for investigating and disciplining doctors from the task of licensing them, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. New York's health department investigates doctors, as it did in Byrne’s case in the 1990s, while the education department licenses them. In most other states, the same entity does both.
The process of restoring a medical license is complex. Among other requirements, Clukey, the education department spokesperson, said applicants must submit affidavits from five people who can “testify to the applicant's ability to practice, character, and behavior and conduct since the license was revoked.” The board also reviews a doctor’s efforts to re-educate themselves after losing their license.
Medical board records show Byrne completed a rehabilitation program for physicians at SUNY Upstate Medical University called the Physician Prescribed Educational Program shortly after his New York license was revoked in 1991.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents,” said Dr. Roger Oskvig, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center who has served on the New York State Board of Professional Medical Conduct and was one of the longest-serving chairs of the state’s Board of Medicine.
“It's not a lack of information that we deal with,” he said. “If an individual is restored that has a lot of historical information, it's because the restoration committee has concluded that that's not a risk to the public based on the information provided.”
Oskvig told Gothamist he continues to work with the board, but said he was not speaking as a representative of the department and could not speak about any specific doctors or hearings.
“New York state law is clear,” Oskvig said of the process for restoring a license. “It's the burden of the applicant to prove their qualifications.” He added that, like many other state medical boards, making a false statement or omitting information could be considered fraud.
“The penalty for which is: no license or no membership on the medical staff,” Oskvig said. “The applications have to be truthful and complete.”
JP O’Hare, a spokesperson for New York’s education department, said the state had recently changed its license restoration process, which he said had previously relied on a narrower definition of professional misconduct focused on criminal wrongdoing and not civil matters such as medical malpractice lawsuits.
“That had historically limited the record that was considered,” O’Hare wrote in an emailed statement. “We have made recent changes to strengthen our review to include an overall consideration of moral character, including civil and employment actions, prior to rendering the final panel recommendations.”
‘Long, hard road’
When he was alive, Matthew’s favorite chair at home was red and made of soft foam. A photo Henries sent to a reporter shows Matthew reclined in the char, an older sibling cradling his head.
“He loved to sit in that and watch MTV,” John Henries said, recalling a time when he’d found Matthew laughing at the screen.
Henries said his own life began to unravel after Matthew’s death, and that his marriage to Matthew’s mother, who did not wish to take part in this story, suffered as well, ultimately ending in divorce.
“I went down a long, hard road and a lot of it was not good,” Henries said. “She asked me why I keep going to the cemetery, and I couldn't even tell her why. I just felt like I was abandoning him up there, that he was there all alone.”
Henries died from ongoing health issues in 2022, four months after he was interviewed.
“When are they gonna say enough's enough?” Henries said of New York’s decision to restore Byrne’s license. “Or don’t they ever say that?”
Additional reporting by Ethan Corey and Jaclyn Jeffrey-Willensky