Suit faults UPMC, others for Western Psych shooting


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At least 17 UPMC doctors treated John Shick for various ailments in the months before he shot six people at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and two of those physicians were so concerned about his bizarre and sometimes threatening behavior that they launched aborted efforts to involuntarily commit him, a new court filing alleges.

In the end, Shick was never forced into a mental hospital as he had been in both New York and Oregon after violent encounters with police.

While in Pittsburgh, Shick menaced people at a UPMC facility with a baseball bat, hovered around the apartment door of one of his treating physicians who lived in his building, sent a letter to a doctor telling her to "be very careful," and was kicked out of two practices because of his behavior, according to the complaint filed on behalf of wounded Western Psych receptionist Kathryn Leight and her husband.

UPMC has denied that Shick menaced anyone with the bat.

Shick's months of treatment at UPMC, which he ended by taking himself off antipsychotic medications, resulted in increasingly erratic behavior. Twice, the suit claims, UPMC's re:solve mobile crisis unit was dispatched to Shick's North Oakland apartment, but clinicians in the field never managed to assess him.

PG graphic: Significant interactions between John Shick and UPMC
(Click image for larger version)

On March 8, 2012, Shick, 30, walked into the Oakland mental hospital with two handguns. He shot Mrs. Leight, 66, of Shaler and four others, and killed therapist Michael Schaab, before being fatally shot by police.

The complaint, filed Friday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court by attorney Mark J. Homyak, names UPMC, University of Pittsburgh Physicians, the University of Pittsburgh, and re:solve as defendants. Also named are Shick's mother, Susan, and the administrator of his estate.

Mr. Homyak, who has obtained a large segment of Shick's medical records, claims in the suit that UPMC's doctors and peace officers who dealt with Shick had the ability to commit him but did not.

The suit alleges that Mrs. Leight was not sufficiently protected in a facility whose security Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has described as "either negligible or non-existent."

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said: "The 89-page complaint filed today by Mr. and Mrs. Leight, while aggregating much information and many allegations about Mr. Shick and the tragedy he inflicted on our community, falls far short of the standards required to impose responsibility for his actions on UPMC, its constituent organizations, or any of their dedicated professionals."

The complaint claims that Mrs. Shick did not inform UPMC employees about her son's prior violent encounters with police in New York City and Oregon that led to him being committed.

Mrs. Shick could not be reached for comment.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele said the school does not comment on pending litigation.

Under the state's Mental Health Procedures Act doctors and peace officers can unilaterally initiate the proceedings to involuntarily commit someone, known as a "302" for the section of law authorizing it.

Michael O'Day, the attorney representing the family of Mr. Schaab and wounded unit clerk Marta Drevitch, said he found the suit's allegations "disturbing."

"I have serious questions as to how an individual can see 17 UPMC doctors and not one of them initiated 302 proceedings," Mr. O'Day said Monday.

Mr. O'Day confirmed that he is in communication with UPMC on behalf of the Schaabs but would not provide details or say whether he was discussing a settlement.

Numerous UPMC employees who figure prominently in the suit either could not be reached or declined comment.

One who was contacted, Gregory Gallik, medical director of UPMC Shadyside Family Health Center, said, "I'm really not interested in speaking with you," before hanging up.

Dr. Gallik's health center in the 5200 block of Centre Avenue played a prominent role in Shick's care. It was where Shick's first medical contacts occurred when he arrived in Pittsburgh as a Duquesne University graduate student.

Physicians there -- including residents Jason Kirby and Thomas Weiner, the two who eventually expressed interest in committing Shick but did not -- had numerous encounters with Shick over roughly eight months in 2011 and 2012.

As Shick saw Dr. Weiner for various complaints of neck, chest and ankle pain, high cholesterol, vomiting, belching and depression, he ran into problems at Duquesne, where he harassed women and was eventually kicked off campus.

Thus was launched a pattern that Mr. Homyak attributed to Shick's schizophrenia.

With his mother's help, the suit contends, Shick would apply for jobs and apply to schools. But the stability was fragile, and he would end up going off his medication and cease treatment.

And, Mr. Homyak alleged, Mrs. Shick, sailing on a boat in the Caribbean with her husband on a years-long post-retirement odyssey, tried to direct her son from afar, unable to provide the type of support a schizophrenic needs.

As Shick's schizophrenia manifested itself again in a variety of odd ways, he would tell people he was not mentally ill. His behavior would change, he would perceive illnesses that did not exist, he would seek treatment and become violent, the suit says.

Mr. Homyak claims that the cycle Shick exhibited in Pittsburgh mirrored what happened in New York and Portland before, when he was involuntarily committed to mental institutions after violent encounters.

"Susan [Shick] repeatedly provided incomplete psychiatric histories to [University of Pittsburgh Physicians] and re:solve, omitting his violent history," the complaint alleges.

It is not clear whether any UPMC physician ever attempted to get Shick's medical records from New York and Oregon or knew that he had attacked police officers there.

On Feb. 10 Shick arrived at Shadyside Family Health Center with a baseball bat, prompting Dr. Weiner to contact re:solve clinician Jeff McFadden.

Dr. Weiner described Shick's behavior and expressed concern about his name being disclosed, the suit says. That day a mobile crisis team was dispatched, but Shick refused to be assessed.

On Feb. 20, Dr. Kirby spoke with Valerie Krieger, another re:solve clinician. He was looking for help to have Shick committed, the complaint says.

"Dr. Kirby reported that the patient had been increasingly delusional, psychotic and verbally aggressive at his office appointments in the last month, that Shick came into the office today with a baseball bat and was intimidating the staff, banging the bat on furniture, UPMC security was called and Shick was escorted out," according to the suit.

"Dr. Kirby reported that staff members in other UPMC offices had reported that Shick was also carrying a bat with him wherever he goes, and that UPMC Shadyside security personnel reported they had an altercation with Shick in the preceding week in which the security staff had drawn guns on Shick due to his confrontational nature."

Ms. Krieger dispatched a mobile team to meet with Dr. Kirby, the complaint says, but told him that the call was on hold because a team was not available. She told Dr. Kirby that he could go to the Western Psych emergency room to complete a commitment petition, the suit says.

Dr. Kirby allegedly spoke with re:solve staff twice that afternoon and said he wanted to pick up the paperwork and would go to Western Psych himself the next day.

He never did, the lawsuit claims.

Eight days later, though, Dr. Kirby sent Shick a letter notifying him that the practice would no longer treat him.

A little more than a week after that, on March 8, Shick entered Western Psych and began shooting.

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Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. First Published April 29, 2013 3:00 PM


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