California doctor sued for unconscious patient sticker prank

A Southern California anesthesiologist's decision to decorate an unconscious patient's face with stickers and a photo taken by a nurse's aide have prompted a state investigation and a lawsuit against the hospital and doctor for alleged breach of medical privacy.

During surgery at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in 2011, Dr. Patrick Yang used stickers to give his patient a black mustache and teardrops under her left eye, and then the nurse's aide took a picture, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The patient, Veronica Valdez, 36, worked at the hospital for 13 years before the surgery on her finger.

The hospital called the incident a breach of professionalism and said in a statement that it demonstrated poor judgment.

Yang said he cut out and colored the stickers, and then placed them on Valdez's face near the end of the hour-long procedure. In his deposition, Yang said, "I thought she would think this is funny and she would appreciate it."

Nursing attendant Patricia Gomez took Valdez's photo. Gomez testified in her deposition that she didn't email or post the photo anywhere, and deleted it after showing it to Valdez.

"I felt violated. I was in shock," Valdez said in court documents.

Others testified in depositions about seeing a surgery photo of Valdez posted on Facebook. In court filings, lawyers for the hospital said there was no evidence the photo was published online.

Hospital officials reported the incident to state regulators as a potential violation of medical privacy. A spokesman for the California Department of Public Health said the agency can't comment on an ongoing investigation.

Yang and other employees involved in the incident were disciplined but not fired.

Valdez's civil suit is scheduled for trial in January. She's seeking damages from the hospital, the anesthesiologist and his medical group for violation of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and other allegations.

Her attorney, Andrew T. Ryan in Los Angeles, said Valdez had to leave her job ordering and maintaining supplies for the hospital's operating rooms because she was "ridiculed and humiliated while under anesthesia."

In response, Torrance Memorial said the allegations in Valdez's lawsuit were "factually inaccurate, grossly exaggerated or fabricated." Its motion to dismiss the case is pending.

In court filings, the hospital contends that Valdez is trying to "play litigation lottery" against a "deep-pocket defendant."