Under the Knife

After a long history of public drunkenness and allegations of slashing two men's throats, it is time to examine the troubled practice of Dr. John Hargett

Wysong says Hargett is best known in town as a devoted father and a generous citizen who gives free physicals to indigent patients and participates in community raffles.

"I'm happy to know him as a friend. I've never seen him lose his temper. I've never seen him raise his voice," Wysong says. "He's one of those guys, if you took him home to meet your parents, they'd be happy. They'd say you did pretty well."

Mary Ann Harris agrees that Hargett is a good family doctor. In November 1986, Hargett delivered her son, Cord.

"I must have been in [labor] for 12 hours, and he [Hargett] never left the hospital. He took good care of me," Harris says. "He treated my husband for high blood pressure, and he took care of him. He was a good doctor; he sure was."

Harris, however, disagrees with Brad Wysong's belief that Hargett would make a good impression on a girl's parents. Two months before Cord was born, Harris says, she and her husband, Dean, were inside their Collin County home at about 11:30 p.m. when their daughter came running into the house, screaming that someone tried to run her boyfriend off the road. The couple were returning home from church in separate cars.

"At the time, we didn't even know it was Dr. Hargett, so he [Dean Harris] just got in his truck and followed him. When he left, I called the sheriff," Harris says.

Harris says she's not sure what Hargett was doing, but guesses he may have mistaken her daughter and future son-in-law for other people.

Harris' husband struck Hargett's car during the chase when Hargett slammed on the brakes and tried to do a 180 in his car. Hargett then left the scene of the accident, but was later stopped in front of the city hall in neighboring Melissa. Instead of arresting Hargett for drunk driving, Harris says, the sheriff's deputies simply took him home.

"I know he was drinking, and I don't know why the highway patrol didn't put him down," Harris says. "I'm not trying to say they did something wrong, but if it had been my husband, they would have written him up for it. Hargett would have run over my son if he could have gotten by with it."

During the same year that the Harrises claim to have chased Hargett off their property, Hargett was hit with his first medical malpractice suit. It turned out to be costly.

Before the case went to trial, Hargett's insurance company would pay $1 million to settle out of court. Soon, his personal finances slid into a downward spiral that would force the doctor into bankruptcy proceedings that continue today.

Dr. Hargett was assigned to cover the emergency room at Wysong Memorial Hospital on the morning of March 18, 1986, when 50-year-old Wiley Capps got thrown from the cab of a pickup truck during a car accident on Highway 380 east of Princeton, Texas. Paramedics found Capps lying on his back, complaining of chest pains and numbness in his toes and fingers. As is standard procedure in cases of a possible spinal cord injury, the paramedics placed Capps on a backboard, fitted him with a cervical neck collar, and rushed him to Wysong hospital and Dr. Hargett.

In the emergency room, Capps complained of shoulder pain and a weak grip in his right hand. He was unable to lift his right leg. After an initial examination, a nurse determined that Capps had a hematoma--a blood-filled swelling often associated with spinal injuries--on his right temple.

Hargett, who noted the same symptoms and suspected potential head and neck injuries, ordered skull and cervical spine X-rays. But the doctor failed to take the precaution of immobilizing Capps' head and neck while the tests were taken, according to court records. (Dr. Brad Wysong, who also was named in the suit, took the X-rays, though a jury later determined he was not liable in the case.)

After viewing the X-rays and deeming them normal, Hargett told Capps he could go home, according to court records. But Capps' wife, Charlotte, pleaded with Hargett to admit her husband for overnight observation.

"My husband told me he couldn't grip with his hands, and he [Hargett] told me I could take him home," Charlotte Capps says. "I said I wasn't going to take him anywhere. [Wiley] couldn't even hold a glass of water."

During the next 24 hours, Capps' condition progressively worsened in the hospital. Hargett did not fit Capps with a neck brace, and he did not give the nursing staff any written or verbal instructions on how to handle his patient, according to court records. As a result, Wiley was handled like a sack of potatoes, the Cappses argued in court.

"Every time I'd go throw a fit, they'd get [Hargett] to come in, and he'd check him. He'd say, 'Well, we may have to take an X-ray,'" Charlotte recalls. "I mean, by 12 o'clock that night he was paralyzed and dying. He started throwing up; all kinds of things was happening. I can't remember them all because I was so scared."

At 1 a.m., Hargett applied a painful stimulus in an attempt to test Capps' legs for a response, but the patient's legs were still. At 2:45 a.m., Capps began vomiting. He was transferred to the intensive care unit, and Hargett informed Charlotte that the hospital did not have the proper equipment to perform a scan of Capps' neck. That night, Capps was transferred to Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, but by then his previously intact spinal cord had been severed.

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