Doctor issues apology, indicates he plans to keep his job

A Mitchell surgeon is indicating he will keep his job following controversial statements that he is now apologizing for. In a letter to the editor published on Page 4 of this edition, Jerome K. Howe offered an apology for "language which was inap...

A Mitchell surgeon is indicating he will keep his job following controversial statements that he is now apologizing for.

In a letter to the editor published on Page 4 of this edition, Jerome K. Howe offered an apology for "language which was inappropriate." He also wrote that he "will be out of the office for a while" but is "committed to continuing the practice of medicine in Mitchell at Avera Mitchell Surgical."

Trish Delaney, Avera's local vice president of marketing/fund development, said in a Wednesday interview that Avera has completed an investigation into Howe's conduct. She said employee confidentiality issues prevent her from divulging further details, and she would not say whether the temporary work absence that Howe referred to in his letter is voluntary or forced.

Delaney said earlier this week that Howe resigned his seat on Avera Queen of Peace's Board of Directors, but she did not know whether the resignation was voluntary or forced.

Meanwhile, a local prosecutor is still considering whether to charge Howe with a crime for allegedly threatening comments he made to Korrie Wenzel, the editor of The Daily Republic.


Howe called Wenzel at home the evening of March 6 to complain about an editorial Wenzel wrote for that morning's newspaper. The editorial questioned whether the local hospital's practice of recruiting physicians who are native to Mitchell is resulting in the best possible health care for Mitchell residents. The Daily Republic had reported in a prior news story that Howe's son was among a group of Mitchell natives returning home to practice medicine.

According to Wenzel, Howe berated him with profanity during the phone call and used a racial slur to describe physicians of Middle Eastern descent. Howe also said Wenzel was lucky The Daily Republic hadn't been "firebombed," according to Wenzel.

Howe came to Wenzel's office three days later and, after being told an audio recorder was in use, repeated the racial slur he had used on the phone. Howe, who is white, complained that the hiring of a white physician was likely to receive more scrutiny than the hiring of a "sand ni**er."

Howe demanded an apology for the editorial and, when Wenzel refused, Howe said "Anything other than that's war, and I've got the ammunition."

Local police investigated the allegedly threatening nature of Howe's comments and forwarded their findings to Davison County State's Attorney Pat Smith.

Smith, whose wife works for Avera, gave the file to Assistant State's Attorney Bob O'Keefe in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

O'Keefe said Wednesday that he has not had time to decide whether charges will be filed against Howe. South Dakota Codified Law says it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a person to use a telephone "with intent to threaten to inflict physical harm or injury to any person or property." The maximum penalty for a Class 1 misdemeanor is one year in a county jail and a $2,000 fine.

In Howe's letter to the editor, he said he used "language which was inappropriate" and asked forgiveness for "the language that was printed." He apologized to "family, friends, colleagues, my patients, the Sisters, board of directors, administration, employees of Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, the community, and to anyone else who feels involved." His use of the word "Sisters" was a reference to the Benedictine and Presentation Sisters, who sponsor the Avera health system as a Catholic health ministry.


Howe also wrote that he had looked forward to practicing with his son, but "now I am not sure I will have that opportunity."

Howe's son, Jarett, and Aaron Baas, the son of the late Mitchell physician Walter Baas, have committed to join Avera Mitchell Surgical. When Delaney was asked Wednesday about their status, she issued this statement:

"Both Dr. Baas and Dr. Howe have committed to return to Mitchell -- Dr. Baas in 2010 and Dr. Howe in 2011. They are, however, unsettled about the recent newspaper coverage, especially the editorial.

"We are working to assure them that Mitchell indeed has the qualities to provide an excellent home for their families and to provide a challenging and satisfying medical practice."

One of the questions posed in Wenzel's editorial was "When we succumb to a severe medical crisis, do we want the best possible doctor to treat us, or one who simply grew up down the street?" The editorial also said, "We were assured by a hospital spokesman that the 'best and the brightest' are considered, no matter where they are from. We believe them, and are pleased to hear that very often, the best and the brightest are hometown kids who have all sorts of options but choose to return to Mitchell."

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