A series of letters submitted to the Taos News over the last several weeks have protested the firing of Dr. Frank Torres, a Harvard- and UCLA-educated physician hired in April as Holy Cross Medical Center’s chief cardiologist and whose last day was July 20.
The patients, some of whom had entrusted Torres with providing treatment for potentially life-threatening heart conditions, had a question, whose complete answer remains the subject of a confidential personnel matter: Why was he let go?
“I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Torres. He saved my life,” said Norman Fulcher, a former head of executive protection at American Airlines who moved to Angel Fire only to learn that he could no longer walk uphill without losing his breath.
After seeing several physicians who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, Fulcher said Torres recognized the problem right away as a potential blockage of a coronary artery. Torres arranged an appointment at an office in Albuquerque, where within three days Fulcher had a stent installed in one of his arteries to fix a 90 percent blockage.
Another patient, Mike Aholley, said his heart rate was spiking to as high as 200 beats per minute due to respiratory problems he developed as a result of running a FEMA emergency response team at ground zero on 9/11.
“I’ve been to several doctors and have had issues, but when I went to Dr. Torres he immediately diagnosed it, he immediately put me on a medicine and I have not had an issue since,” Aholley said. “And now I’m finding out that the guy is leaving. I’m furious.”
Aholley said he sometimes writes “doctors” under the “allergies” section of a patient history form, just to illustrate how much he dislikes being in medical facilities, so it was rare for him when he found himself at ease around Torres.
Sharon Millstein, Liliana Ciccarelli, Stan Riveles, Michael Barber, Peter Rose, Gene and Sarah Gray – there’s a fairly long list of patients who expressed frustration that Torres is now gone after such a short run.
At least for some of them, the hospital’s interim cardiologist means building a new patient-doctor relationship from scratch.
Dr. Geilan Ismail, a highly trained heart doctor who helped found the first cardiology department at Taos Medical Group when she moved to Taos in 2001, also serves on the hospital’s board and will provide services for one year while the hospital seeks a full-time hire.
“I was approached by [Holy Cross Chief Executive Officer Bill Patten] about whether I would be willing to cover,” Ismail said, speaking via phone last week.
In response to an inquiry from the Taos News about Torres’ unexpected departure, Patten said he had exercised a “90-day no cause” provision in Torres’ contract to terminate his employment. He said the reasons were largely financial in nature, but added that the hospital plans to maintain the department.
“Cardiology is an essential service for the Taos community,” he wrote in an email. “However, in its current configuration, our cardiology clinic is not financially sustainable. This is due to a combination of low patient volumes and high expenses, primarily salary.”
Torres made a salary of $425,000, while Patten said Ismail has accepted a salary of $100,000 less for one year.
Like many other rural hospitals whose patient volumes have dropped and services were suspended during the pandemic, Holy Cross has suffered financially more than usual this year. Patten and his team have been seeking to reduce expenses wherever it makes sense to do so.
While he said the decision to fire Torres was not “directly related to the pandemic,” he included it in the same category as “the sort of difficult decisions that we will need to make moving forward as we work to keep specialty services available locally.”
Patten later added that Torres had not fully “embraced” telemedicine – or providing care for patients remotely – as a means to mitigate revenue losses sustained during the pandemic. He also said cardiology was one of the departments that remained open while the hospital reconfigured to respond to the pandemic, with the exception of closures lasting no more than “a day or so.”
Although Ismail will maintain services for the time being, Patten said she is not interested in running the department in the long term.
“We have signed a contract with Dr. Ismail to provide coverage during this transition while we explore new and more sustainable options for the clinic; we want to find a way to keep the service available locally,” Patten said.
When Torres was informed that his contract was being terminated, he said he was told that his “practice was not viable due to COVID-19,” but he admits that he doesn’t know for sure whether his practice was losing money or not.
While many of his patients wrote letters to the Taos News of their own accord, Torres acknowledged that he had encouraged three or four of them to do so.
“I would have liked to have stayed at Holy Cross,” he said after his last day at the hospital. “My patients wanted me to stay.”
Torres initially told the paper that his firing seemed to be, at least in part, a “political” decision made between Patten and Ismail, whom he said has retired and “un-retired” to lead cardiology more than once throughout her 20-year career with Holy Cross.
Ismail explains the matter of her retirement with a mixed answer.
“Well, yes and no, I’ve retired,” she said. “I actually have always been available to cover cardiology services.”
Ismail said she did retire from “full-time clinic work” and then began covering cardiology as an independent contractor for the hospital in 2015. When the hospital would find coverage, she continued to cover for physicians when they took vacations. In 2018, she said she tried to fully retire yet again, but then “did sort of abruptly take over cardiology again” to cover for Torres when he took time off. Torres worked on an interim basis in cardiology prior to being hired full time.
“So in terms of did I retire? Kind of not really,” she said. “I just went from being full-time to only covering as needed.”
Ismail isn’t paid anything for her role as a board member at the hospital, which is a nonprofit.
She said any discussions about personnel matters were confidential, and so would not offer comment about Torres’ firing. Personnel matters are sometimes discussed at public board meetings, but decisions to terminate an employee would only have been made in an executive session.
Patten said finding the right physician to run the cardiology practice full time has been a longstanding problem at Holy Cross.
“We have also used a number of locums physicians in an effort to prevent a break in the service,” Patten wrote. “Holy Cross makes money on the testing procedures the cardiologist performs but we lose money on the clinic portion of the practice. And the specialty is fairly high-priced so we have had to offer salaries higher than the practice can support in order to be competitive.”
Moving forward, he said he would be seeking a full-time cardiologist who “can do procedures Dr. Torres cannot perform,” such as pacemaker installations and transesophageal echocardiograms, a process by which an image of the heart is constructed using ultrasonic sound waves.
Patients who wrote in, however, seemed to be most concerned with establishing a relationship with a doctor that lasts.
Some felt they had finally found that with Torres.
“I don’t like doctors,” Aholley said. “I can’t stand them because they scare me, but I tucked my tail between my legs and I went and saw this man and he truly made me feel comfortable. He made me feel very at home. He gave me his personal cellphone number and said if I had any issues in the evening or at night to call him please. Who does that?”