A doctor who performed unnecessary spinal surgeries in California before moving to Michigan to commit the same scheme was sentenced Monday to nearly 20 years in prison after former patients tearfully described how their lives have been ravaged by pain and ceaseless complications.
Some ex-patients wore braces or leaned on canes as they spoke to the judge. One woman was in a wheelchair. All had a common story: They sought relief from Dr. Aria Sabit but instead got a permanent dose of suffering.
Sabit, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud, had a financial stake in Apex Medical Technologies LLC and made money when he used its spinal devices. He worked at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, California, until moving to suburban Detroit in 2011.
U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said Sabit committed "cruel and unusual punishment" and "horrific criminal acts."
Sabit, 43, acknowledged that he was responsible for his patients' awful care. He quietly told victims that he was sorry after they spoke and walked past his seat in court, but that just stirred up anger.
"I'm going to throw up," Angela Martin of suburban Detroit told a reporter. She spoke in court on behalf of a daughter who was 21 when she saw Sabit after a car crash and got a "butchery job" by the surgeon.
Indeed, prosecutors also referred to Sabit's work as "plain butchery" as they explained how he sought vulnerable patients with lower back pain.
"Sabit lied to his patients and convinced them to undergo invasive fusion surgery with instrumentation, knowing he would not perform a fusion or place instrumentation in the spinal column," the government said in a court filing.
The victims even included an executive at Community Memorial. Rick Porterfield said Sabit was considered a "golden boy" at the hospital who had warned him that he might not walk if he didn't have emergency spinal fusion surgery.
Porterfield said he couldn't walk after the nine-hour surgery and was sent to a rehabilitation center. After five weeks, he finally went home — in a wheelchair.
Porterfield, now 66, is back on his feet but takes multiple pain medications and can't fish, golf or teach his grandchildren how to hit a baseball.
"I have to have pedicures because I can't reach my feet," Porterfield told the judge.
Kevin Reynolds said his mother, Lillian Kaulback, died at age 68 from complications from Sabit's surgery. Speaking by video in California, Kathleen Hembree said she has burns on her back from heating pads used to alleviate constant pain. Her vision also is impaired.
"I trusted him," Hembree said of Sabit.