Dr. Gordon Victor Ohning, whose tenure as a professor and researcher in the UNLV School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine began in 2017, held much the same kind of position at UCLA 10 years ago when he learned about a hepatitis C outbreak in Las Vegas.
And Ohning learned about it not only from other doctors and dispatches sent out from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but also from patients in his practice at a Veterans Administration hospital in Southern California.
Little did he know that the hepatitis outbreak would become a teaching tool for his new position at the UNLV School of Medicine.
“I had patients canceling colonoscopies in Los Angeles because they learned from the media what happened in Las Vegas,” he said recently as he sat in his UNLV Medicine office at 1707 West Charleston Blvd.
After the outbreak at clinics owned by Dr. Dipak Desai became public in February 2008 — it was called by federal investigators the largest in the history of the United States — health officials issued advisories that led 63,000 clinic patients to get tested for potentially fatal blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis and HIV. Investigators blamed unsafe injection practices and traced the infections of nine people to two clinics. One patient died. Though both federal and local investigators thought the hepatitis C infections of another 105 patients might have been related, they said they couldn’t rule out other sources of infection.
Civil court trials spawned by the outbreak resulted in judgements of hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to victims. Criminal cases were filed against Desai and two nurses — all three went to prison. Prosecutors argued they were more interested in money than safety.
“The practice of medicine is not about making money,” said Ohning, the section chief in gastroenterology at University Medical Center, the medical school’s main teaching hospital. ”I let students know it’s always about doing the absolute best for your patients, about being compassionate... You’re making a commitment to them. You’ve got to do your best. You have to really care, persevere, find out what’s wrong. Make a correct diagnosis.”
Ohning said he uses the hepatitis outbreak as a teaching tool with students as well as staff at UMC, but does not talk about individuals involved. “I don’t personalize it,” he said. “What I care about is what happened. We don’t want it to happen again. Safety is first...I’ve found there are still people in Las Vegas who worry about getting colonoscopies because of what happened.”
After 30 years as a professor at UCLA — he also was a prolific researcher with the CURE: Digestive Diseases Research Center there — Ohning said the opportunity to help create a new medical center was too inviting to pass up.
“How many times do you get to build a new public medical school from the ground up?” he said. “Very rarely. I get to help make sure the proper protocols and systems are in place. That’s a tremendous opportunity.”
What Ohning loves about medicine is “making people better... talking to people... I’m a history buff so I learned a lot about World War II by taking care of veterans.”
Ohning, who says he never looks for “an” answer to what’s wrong with his patients but ‘the” answer, earned his medical degree from Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio and did a residency in internal medicine at the University of Iowa.
A fellowship in gastroenterology at UCLA followed.
“I see the GI tract as the most important system in the human body,” he said, smiling. “Disease processes are not limited to just one organ. The entire body is built around the GI tract. Of course, some of my colleagues and students beg to differ about its importance.”