Immigrants say they were pressured into unneeded surgeries
By Caitlin Dickerson, Seth Freed Wessler and Miriam Jordan
Wendy Dowe was startled awake early one morning in January 2019, when guards called her out of her cellblock in the Irwin County immigration detention center in rural Georgia, where she had been held for four months. She would be having surgery that day, they said.
Still groggy, the 48-year-old immigrant from Jamaica, who had been living without legal status in the United States for two decades before she was picked up by immigration authorities, felt a swell of dread come over her. An outside gynecologist who saw patients in immigration custody told her that the menstrual cramping she had was caused by large cysts and masses that needed to be removed, but she was skeptical. The doctor insisted, she said, and as a detainee — brought to the hospital in handcuffs and shackles — she felt pressured to consent.
It was only after she was deported to Jamaica and had her medical files reviewed by several other doctors that she knew she had been right to raise questions.
A radiologist’s report, based on images of her internal organs from her time at Irwin, described her uterus as being a healthy size, not swollen with enlarged masses and cysts, as the doctor had written in his notes. The cysts she had were small, and the kind that occur naturally and do not usually require surgical intervention.
“I didn’t have to do any of it,” Dowe said.
The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, drew national attention this month after a nurse, Dawn Wooten, filed a whistleblower complaint claiming that detainees had told her they had had their uteruses removed without their full understanding or consent.
Since then, both ICE and the hospital in Irwin County have released data that show that two full hysterectomies have been performed on women detained at Irwin in the past three years. But firsthand accounts are now emerging from detainees, including Dowe, who underwent other invasive gynecological procedures that they did not fully understand and, in some cases, may not have been medically necessary.
At least one lawyer brought the complaints about gynecological care to the attention of the center’s top officials in 2018, according to emails obtained by The New York Times, but the outside referrals continued.
The Times interviewed 16 women who were concerned about the gynecological care they received while at the center, and conducted a detailed review of the medical files of seven women who were able to obtain their records. All 16 were treated by Dr. Mahendra Amin, who practices gynecology in the nearby town of Douglas and has been described by ICE officials as the detention center’s “primary gynecologist.”
The cases were reviewed by five gynecologists — four of them board-certified and all with medical school affiliations — who found that Amin consistently overstated the size or risks associated with cysts or masses attached to his patients’ reproductive organs. Small or benign cysts do not typically call for surgical intervention, where large or otherwise troubling ones sometimes do, the experts said.
The doctors stressed that in some cases the medical files might not have been complete and that additional information could potentially shift their analyses. But they noted that Amin seemed to consistently recommend surgical intervention, even when it did not seem medically necessary at the time and nonsurgical treatment options were available.
In almost every woman’s chart, Amin listed symptoms such as heavy bleeding with clots and chronic pelvic pain, which could justify surgery. But some of the women said they never experienced or reported those symptoms to him.
Both the reviewing doctors and all of the women interviewed by The Times raised concerns about whether Amin had adequately explained the procedures he performed or provided his patients with less invasive alternatives. Spanish-speaking women said a nurse who spoke Spanish was only sporadically present during their exams.
“He is overly aggressive in his treatment and does not explore appropriate medical management before turning to procedures or surgical intervention,” said Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer, a forensic evaluator and instructor at the Weill Cornell Medical School Human Rights Clinic.
But the doctors who reviewed the cases noted that aggressive overtreatment is all too common among doctors — especially with patients who do not have the resources to seek a second opinion.
Dr. Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, said in a statement that the whistleblower’s allegations “raise some very serious concerns that deserve to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.” She added, “If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”
Amin’s lawyer, Scott Grubman, said in a statement that the physician “strongly disputes any allegations that he treated any patient with anything other than the utmost care and respect.”
“Dr. Amin also strongly disputes that any patient was treated without full informed consent,” the statement continued. Grubman said that patient privacy laws prevented him from discussing any specific patient’s treatment, but in each case it “was medically necessary, performed within the standard of care, and done only after obtaining full informed consent.”
The statement added that Amin always uses an interpreter when treating patients who do not speak English and “always attempts to treat his patients with more conservative treatment, including medicine and less invasive procedures, before even recommending surgery,” which he views as a last resort.
Independent doctors that provide treatment for ICE detainees are paid for the procedures they perform with Department of Homeland Security funds. Procedures like the ones that Amin performed are normally billed at thousands of dollars each.
Amin’s billings had previously come to the attention of federal authorities. In 2013, the Justice Department named him in a civil case alleging that he and several other doctors had overbilled Medicare and Medicaid by, among other things, performing unnecessary procedures on terminal patients and leaving the emergency room staffed by nurses while billing for diagnoses and treatments as if they had been performed by doctors. The case was settled, and the defendants were collectively required to pay $520,000 while admitting no fault.
‘I could not ask any questions’
In many cases, Amin’s patients said they were confused about why they ended up being sent to his office in the first place — some after raising medical issues that had nothing to do with gynecology.
Yuridia, a 36-year-old immigrant from Mexico, sought out a nurse at the center soon after she arrived because she was having pain in her rib after a fight with her abusive ex-partner just before she was picked up by ICE. She asked to be identified by her first name because she feared for her safety.
She was sent for a medical exam at Amin’s office, where she said he began to prepare an ultrasound machine. “I was assuming they were going to check my rib,” she said. “The next thing I know, he’s doing a vaginal exam.”
Amin recorded in his notes that Yuridia had cysts in her ovaries and scheduled a surgery to remove them. He also wrote that she had complained of heavy menstruation and pelvic pain. She said that she never experienced or reported those conditions and that she had not asked to see a gynecologist.
Weeks later, she underwent surgery. Pathology reports show that she did not have dangerous cysts, but small ones of the kind that occur naturally in most women and do not call for surgical intervention.
Yuridia said she had expected only a minor procedure that would be performed vaginally, but she was surprised when she woke up to find three incisions on her abdomen and a piece of skin missing from her genital area.
“I woke up and I was alone, and I was in pain and everyone spoke English so I could not ask any questions,” Yuridia said. Three days later, still sore and recovering, she was deported.
Yuridia’s case bears striking similarities to others that the panel of doctors reviewed. Many of them led to two surgical procedures performed simultaneously: “dilation and curettage,” often referred to as a “D & C,” which involves inserting tools into a woman’s vagina and scraping tissue from the uterus, and laparoscopy, in which three incisions are made to insert a camera into the abdominal cavity to examine or perform procedures on the reproductive organs.
The cases suggest a pattern of “excessively aggressive surgical intervention without adequate trial of medical remedies,” Ottenheimer said.
A report reveals long-standing complaints
It was the Irwin County center’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that inspired Wooten, the nurse whose whistleblower complaint was first reported by The Intercept, to come forward about another issue that troubled her: Amin’s surgeries. She said in an interview that she had for years noticed that an inordinate number of women were being referred to Amin. She said she would hear reports that they had undergone surgeries but that they had no idea why the surgeries were performed.
“After they get up from general anesthesia,” Wooten said, the women would ask, “Why’d I have this surgery?”
“And I don’t have an answer for why,” she said. “I am just as shocked as they are. Nobody explained it to them.”
Data from ICE inspection reports show that the center, which is operated by a private prison company, Lasalle Corrections, refers more than 1,000 detainees a year for outside medical care, far more than most other immigration detention centers of the same size. It is not clear how many of these referrals are for gynecological care. Lasalle Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.
Some women said they had managed to avoid surgeries by Amin but not without facing resistance.
Enna Perez Santos said she objected when Amin suggested that she undergo a procedure similar to the ones that other women had complained about. Amin, she said, counseled her that it was a mistake to forgo the treatment and he wrote in his notes that she had asked to speak to a mental health care provider.
Back at the detention center on the same day, Perez Santos was given a psychiatric evaluation. “I am nervous about my upcoming procedure,” Perez Santos told the examiner, according to the practitioner’s notes. “I am worried because I saw someone else after they had surgery, and what I saw scared me.”
Perez Santos was brought three more times to Amin’s office over the next several months, she recalled. Each time, she said, Amin raised the prospect of a surgery. She felt “pressured” to agree, she said, but each time she told him she did not consent.
Three board certified gynecologists who reviewed Perez Santos’ medical files say that her instincts appear to have been correct. “Based on what I see here, Amin was inappropriately suggesting a D & C scope,” Ottenheimer said. “There is nothing at all there to support the procedure.”