It takes a hospital-issued keycard to enter the doctor’s lounge at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, but a recent unauthorized visitor seems to have discovered that there is another way to slip into an inner sanctum reserved for MDs.
A second door, unprotected by a keycard-activated lock, provides access through an adjacent medical library, said Scott Evans, Grossmont’s chief executive officer.
It’s likely, he said in an interview earlier this week, that the young man who started showing up in a fake Sharp lab coat and scrubs used this alternate entrance to insert himself into the midst of physicians he had already started chatting up on the business social network LinkedIn.
Or maybe he slipped in the main door behind others who had been granted access. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
But why he did it is the real mystery.
Why did a 27-year-old Swedish citizen born in Iraq living in San Diego on an expired visa keep showing up at the La Mesa hospital, claiming he was a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist when he wasn’t?
Why did he keep requesting access to Grossmont’s electronic medical records system even though administrators kept denying his requests?
Though these new details and more surfaced Friday during the arraignment of Zaid Bassam Jeorge, his motive remained unclear.
He didn’t, Evans said, seem too focused on patients per se. There is no evidence, the executive said, that he ever managed to have a direct interaction with anyone receiving care within Grossmont’s walls. His focus seemed to be firmly on the medical staff.
“We don’t think he was attempting to see patients or anything like that. It was more like he was trying to develop a camaraderie with the medical staff,” Evans said.
“We are not sure where this was going to go,” said deputy district attorney Paul Reizen. “Maybe this is someone who is infatuated with being a doctor, or becoming a doctor, and maybe this is someone who has other intentions. The investigation is ongoing, and it’s unclear at this point.”
Jeorge, represented by a privately retained attorney, pleaded not guilty Friday to a single felony count of attempted doctor impersonation and El Cajon Superior Court Judge Robert Amador increased his bail amount from $25,000 to $100,000.
His attorney, Freddy Garmo, did not return a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Though he was out on bail shortly after being arrested at Grossmont on Jan. 11, Jeorge appeared in court direct from federal custody. Laura Mack, a local spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that her department placed a detainer on the man after he was first arrested, requesting that ICE be notified before Jeorge was released from custody. However, that request was not honored due to the state’s new sanctuary state law that limits cooperation of local law enforcement with federal agencies.
Mack said that Jeorge was re-arrested Tuesday using “federal resources.”
“We reviewed Mr. Jeorge’s file and he has been determined to be a threat to public safety, which is why he was placed in our custody and into removal proceedings,” Mack said.
She said she could not say more about why Jeorge was considered a threat to public safety, but did confirm a statement from Reizen that he had overstayed his visa and also that he is a Swedish citizen born in Iraq. ICE only allowed Jeorge to appear in court Friday, she added, after a promise from a state judge that he would be returned to federal custody if he makes bail.
The saga, according to an internal security memo obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune, started with a LinkedIn profile that included pictures of Jeorge in an authentic-looking lab coat with an embroidered Sharp logo and another with him sitting at a computer inside what was later identified to be one of Grossmont’s operating rooms.
Grossmont doctors became suspicious about his credentials after he began showing up in the doctor’s lounge saying that he had received his education at Harvard. One physician, Evans said, went so far as to call the Harvard Alumni Association to try and verify these claims. No verification was forthcoming and the hospital got the police involved.
Harvard University confirmed through its public relations office Friday that it has no record of Jeorge attending or graduating from Harvard Medical School.
Sharp’s security memo indicates that information found in the man’s rented Mercedes sedan indicates that he lived in El Cajon, but Reizen, the deputy district attorney, could not confirm that information Friday afternoon.
Evans said that Jeorge was never a member of the hospital’s medical staff and was never issued any kind of ID badge or keycard that would grant him access to the clinical areas of the hospital.
The doctor’s lounge is in an adjacent building that has no direct access to patient rooms, operating rooms or other areas where care is provided. The photo on Jeorge’s LinkedIn page that showed him in a Grossmont operating room, he added, was taken during a tour conducted by a member of the medical staff.
“He was never, to our knowledge, in the hospital unattended,” Evans said.
It was unclear just how long Jeorge was able to access the doctor’s lounge without getting caught. Reizen said investigators have not yet been able to piece together a full timeline, but one doctor indicated he started seeing the man around the medical campus “after Christmas.” Evans said that hospital security is looking at security camera footage to learn more.
As to that white lab coat with a pretty convincing Sharp logo and Jeorge’s name embroidered on the front, Evans said it was a well-executed fake.
“When we asked about it during our initial interview, he reported to us that he actually had it embroidered himself. It was professionally done. It looked pretty authentic,” Evans said.
Sharp provided investigators with recordings of Jeorge repeatedly requesting access to a hospital database which a health system spokesman confirmed by email Friday was the electronic medical records database used to store myriad patient information from test results and diagnoses to digital X-rays and medications prescribed. Sharp administration, he said, turned down all these requests.
At one point, Reizen added, a Sharp doctor told investigators that he became suspicious of Jeorge and asked to see his hospital-issued photo ID card to which he allegedly replied, “oh, I must have left it in my locker, I just finished up a case.”
State law grants prosecutors discretion, based on the totality of the evidence, in deciding whether to charge a case of medical impersonation, or practicing medicine without a license, as a misdemeanor or a felony. In this case, Reizen said, the pattern of behavior over time, and the potential damage of an untrained person trying to act as an anesthesiologist, led to the felony charge.
“The thought was, if he did actually get to the point of performing anesthesia, the results could have been disastrous,” Reizen said. “The way he conducted himself was not only disingenuous, but kind of heinous in some aspects.”
Evans said he is confident that Jeorge never would have made it that far.
Sure, dressed as a doctor he could have theoretically slipped into a clinical part of the hospital on the coattails of a hospital employee or doctor who had a valid keycard, though security is watching for that sort of thing.
But Evans said doing so wouldn’t have gotten him too far. He said Grossmont contracts with between 30 and 40 anesthesiologists who all know each other and added that he’s confident no one would have started a medical procedure unless his presence was explained and his identity was checked out.
“Surgeons have primary responsibility for patients, and they would be very cautious about working with anybody they hadn’t worked with before,” Evans said.
The executive said the hospital notified the California Department of Public Health, which oversees safety at all inpatient facilities, of the impersonation incident on Jan. 11. The incident, the statement said, appears to be outside the department’s jurisdiction.
“This incident is not considered an adverse event because the alleged impersonator never ordered or provided patient care,” the statement said.
Jeorge faces up to three years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine if convicted.
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