BOB Finch gives a simple reason why he kept going back to eye specialist Eugene Hollenbach for multiple surgeries from 2010, despite complications and his wife's increasing concerns.
"You just think you're the unlucky one when things happen," said Mr Finch, 76, of Corlette.
"I think a majority of his patients are old. They trust the doctor."
Mr Finch is one of multiple people who contacted the Newcastle Herald after a report on August 9 about professional misconduct findings against the prominent Hunter eye specialist, who trained at John Hunter Hospital in the 1990s and was the first vitreoretinal surgeon to be appointed to the health service.
He has worked at Hunter public hospitals since 2002, and at Hunter private hospitals including Lingard, Maitland Private, Hunter Valley Private Hospital and Broadmeadow Day Surgery.
Hunter New England Local Health District this week apologised to patients "who did not receive appropriate care and treatment by Dr Hollenbach", and Dr Hollenbach on Friday apologised "for any hurt or distress caused to patients".
"I have altered my practice to address the concerns raised," he said.
Reports to the Herald included a woman who received a settlement after alleging she was left with permanent scarring and psychological trauma after a cosmetic eye procedure by Dr Hollenbach, whose Preface cosmetic surgery business is listed as "the Hunter's own high-end facial cosmetic clinic".
Now some of his former patients are demanding answers from authorities about their treatment, and the lack of transparency about doctors' histories, after striking similarities between their experiences and those of 13 Hunter patients in the professional misconduct case.
The demands follow NSW Health Care Complaints Commission confirmation this week that another 10 people complained about Dr Hollenbach after it initiated proceedings against him. The HCCC is now considering "whether further action is appropriate" after the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal found Dr Hollenbach guilty of professional misconduct on August 6, but rejected the HCCC submission that his registration be cancelled.
The tribunal ordered that Dr Hollenbach be placed on conditions from September 1 instead, including that he no longer undertake retinal surgery, or second surgery on the same eye of a patient, after a number were left blind in one eye, or with substantially impaired vision, following multiple surgeries by him between 2007 and 2015.
"I had four surgeries within five weeks with him," said John, 59, of Lake Macquarie, who first saw Dr Hollenbach in 2007 for retinal surgery.
"After the second operation he continued to push on. My right eye's good but my left eye is blind. I can tell if the sun's out but that's it.
"After it all happened I thought I was unlucky and then I bumped into another guy who said he'd lost sight in one of his eyes after seeing Hollenbach.
"I was very disappointed when I read that story (in the Herald on August 9) about what those people had been through. I know exactly what they were feeling."
The NCAT decision on August 6 revealed the NSW Medical Council in September, 2018 dismissed complaints by Hunter New England Local Health District and the Pharmaceutical Regulatory Unit against Dr Hollenbach, after finding there was no public interest reason to take action against him.
This was while the HCCC was independently pursuing complaints by 13 Hunter patients, four left blind in one eye, a fifth with substantial vision loss and a sixth suffering "surgical trauma" following surgery by him, the majority at Hunter public hospitals. The NCAT substantiated a "significant" 10 of 13 complaints involving his "professional capacity in performing surgical procedures".
Most of the patients were elderly and some on pensions, with a number seeing Dr Hollenbach for cataract surgery leading to complications, including torn and detached retinas requiring subsequent surgeries.
None of the people who contacted the Herald after the August 9 article had complained to the HCCC.
Sharlee Nyquist, 72, of Port Stephens had successful cataract surgery in her left eye by Dr Hollenbach at Kurri Kurri Hospital in May, 2017.
She agreed to cataract surgery in her right eye using a new type of lens but says today it was "the worst thing I did".
"When I woke up I knew something was wrong. I went home and the next day I removed the eye shield and I couldn't see a thing," Mrs Nyquist said.
"It's been two years of awfulness since then."
Mrs Nyquist has patient records and receipts documenting subsequent surgeries by Dr Hollenbach to repair a retinal tear at Lingard Private Hospital which cost her $6500, later treatment for retinal detachment, removal of the new lens and replacement with a different lens at Cessnock Hospital and other Hunter health facilities.
She now has "sludges on my eye" which at least one other specialist has told her can't be fixed.
Reading about the professional misconduct findings against Dr Hollenbach, based on experiences of patients similar to her own, eased several years of blaming herself for agreeing to the surgery that led to the complications, Mrs Nyquist said.
"Until I saw that article I blamed myself for staying with him," she said.
"I'm just a lay person. I looked at his offices where he had all this equipment and there were always so many people waiting to see him. The fact that he was working in the public health system was a sort of big tick that he was someone I should be seeing.
"He had Hunter New England Health and NSW Health behind him. Then I read that article and I was angry. How long did they know about these complaints? If you're a patient you've got no way to find out the kinds of information you need to make a decision when you see a doctor, so you just have to keep your fingers crossed."
Hunter New England Local Health District said it was advised in February, 2017 that the NSW Medical Council had placed restrictions on Dr Hollenbach's practice and "managed his restrictions with input from an independent supervisor to ensure appropriate patient care".
It launched its own investigation in mid 2017, a spokesperson said.
The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal noted that by December, 2017 Hunter New England Health director of medical services, Associate Professor Pooshan Navathe, advised Dr Hollenbach that "it appears that your clinical practice is within the boundaries of good surgical practice and that the concerns raised did not constitute unsatisfactory professional conduct".
The advice was based on reviews by two specialists, including one independent consulting ophthalmologist.
But Dr Hollenbach agreed to a recommendation preventing him from performing vitreoretinal surgery in the public hospital system until a retrospective audit of all vitreoretinal surgery performed by him was completed, the NCAT said.
By April, 2018 the new director of medical services, Emeritus Professor Michael Hensley, advised Dr Hollenbach he was no longer required to provide a bi-monthly list of all surgeries performed to allow an ongoing audit of complications.
The decision was based on advice that all other surgery by Dr Hollenbach at Muswellbrook and John Hunter Hospitals had been "going well". A Hunter New England Health spokesperson said the advice came from Dr Hollenbach's independent supervisor.
By July, 2018 Hunter New England Health was advised of the HCCC complaints, with 12 involving patients seen by Dr Hollenbach at its facilities.
A health district spokesperson said Dr Hollenbach was one of two specialists credentialled to perform cataract surgery at Muswellbrook Hospital between 2013 and 2017. He was one of 11 ophthalmologists credentialled to perform cataract surgery at Kurri Kurri Hospital between 2013 and 2017. Two were credentialled to perform retinal work.
The health district was aware of the new NCAT conditions and was "managing those with him to ensure appropriate patient care", the spokesperson said.
"Hunter New England Local Health District extends its apologies to the patients who did not receive appropriate care and treatment by Dr Hollenbach," the spokesperson said.
Solicitor Erin Woodward from Catherine Henry Lawyers said the case of Dr Hollenbach and others highlighted the lack of transparency about doctors' histories and "problems with protections available for the public".
"It is difficult to access information about a doctor's registration such as conditions imposed or reprimands that have been made and most people do not know how to," Ms Woodward said.
Her firm settled a claim against Dr Hollenbach in which a woman alleged permanent scarring after he performed a cosmetic eye procedure.
"One of the problems is that many people are simply not aware that there is no restriction on the use of the term 'cosmetic surgeon'. They don't know that any doctor can call themselves a 'cosmetic surgeon' compared to a plastic surgeon who has had to undertake at least five years of extra training and study," Ms Woodward said.
Judith Manning, 80, said it "came as a bit of a shock" when she realised the problems she experienced after cataract surgery by Dr Hollenbach was "not a one-off".
She had surgery in one eye but after agreeing to a new kind of lens in her second eye she had significant problems, she said.
"He was very keen for me to have this new lens and said I wouldn't need to wear glasses with them. I thought, well, he's the doctor. He's the one who knows what he's talking about. How do you know? He had such good rooms, there were always a lot of patients. The average person doesn't question a doctor. You just trust them," Mrs Manning said.
"I'm left in the situation where it's like I have moving shadows across my eyes. I'm not blind. I can thank my lucky stars about that."
Bob Finch's wife Cheryl describes him as too laid back for his own good at times.
He recounts the seven surgeries he underwent after the first cataract surgery by Dr Hollenbach in March, 2010 with a calm voice, including as he recounted spending four nights in John Hunter Hospital when he went "completely blind in one eye" after an injection by Hollenbach under general anaesthetic at Kurri Kurri Hospital by December of that year.
Today he must wear sunglasses outside, and sometimes inside, because the pupil in one eye does not respond to light as it should.
"The pupil stays open all the time," he said.
"My family has always told me to complain but I just thought it was me. The best thing that could have happened is that now he's been exposed for professional misconduct. Now people know, but I reckon they should check out any operations he's done to work out how many other people are out there."
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