Nurse tells inquiry how she hid critically ill patients from surgeon dubbed "Dr. Death" by Australia media

A nurse choked back tears Tuesday as she described having to hide critically ill patients from an overzealous surgeon dubbed "Dr. Death" by Australian media.

Toni Hoffman was testifying before an official inquiry into how Jayant "Jay" Patel, 56, was allowed to practice medicine in Australia's Queensland state, despite having been cited for gross negligence in the U.S. states of Oregon and New York.

Queensland health officials since linked Patel to the deaths of at least 67 patients during his two-year tenure at the rural Bundaberg Base Hospital, where he was hired in 2003.

The state premier, Peter Beattie, said further checks of hospital files had uncovered 20 more deaths related to the Indian-born doctor's care.

Hoffman said Patel would regularly stalk the intensive care unit looking for patients to operate on - but his high level of complications led the nurses to take drastic action.

"We'd taken to hiding patients," Hoffman said. "We'd taken to telling patients that they should ask to be transferred to Brisbane."

"We were seeing these patients dying every day and we couldn't do anything," Hoffman added as she choked back tears. "We just thought, what on earth could we possibly do to stop this man."

Patel left Australia in April, and his whereabouts are unknown. He has not commented on the inquiry or allegations against him, and has no legal representation at the proceedings.

During her testimony, Hoffman broke down several times as she recalled nurses' horror at watching patients die of complications after being treated by Patel, often with allegedly unnecessary procedures.

One patient, Des Bramich, entered the hospital in July with chest injuries.

Hoffman said Patel insisted on using a procedure in which a large needle is inserted into a sac around the heart to drain excess fluid - a common complication of chest injuries.

"He'd done an ultrasound first and there was no fluid around the heart, there was no indication to do this, but he decided he was going to do it anyhow," Hoffman told the inquiry.

The nurse attending Patel told Hoffman, who was on duty at the time, that Patel had jabbed the man's chest up to 50 times before getting the procedure right.

In documents submitted to the inquiry and obtained by The Associated Press, Hoffman said an autopsy found the sac around Bramich's heart was ruptured and full of blood from the jabs.

MERAIAH FOLEY, Associated Press Writer

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