Stuy Town resident and family’s suit to be heard in Court of Appeals
By Sabina Mollot
It was in April of 2011 when Stuyvesant Town resident Ken Chanko lost his father, Mark, after he was fatally hit by a truck.
Mark Chanko, who also lived in Stuyvesant Town for most of his life and was a Korean War army veteran, was struck on the street in front of where he’d lived in more recent years, in Yorkville. He was 83.
Because the death was caused by an accident, and the driver wasn’t drunk, there were no criminal charges filed.
But then, nearly a year and half later, Ken Chanko and the rest of his family wound up experiencing Mark’s death a second time — this time because it was broadcast on a reality show that was filmed – without his father’s or any of the Chankos’ knowledge — at the hospital where Mark had been treated.
The show, “NY Med,” featuring television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, was filmed at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, a medical institution which, along with the show’s network, ABC, has since ended up on the end of a lawsuit filed by the Chanko family, alleging breach of medical confidentiality and pain and suffering. ABC, after initially being contacted by Ken, did agree to pull the segment that included the segment about his father, and to not include it in a DVD for the episode slated for later release. However, the family still went ahead on filing a lawsuit, when, according to Ken, there was “no apology and no admission of wrongdoing.” Pulling the segment, he added, “wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts.” In fact, he added that at first, a hospital rep had told him she couldn’t do anything about it and that he should call ABC.
Full disclosure: Ken Chanko, who currently works as a third grade teacher in the Bronx, at one time wrote film reviews for this newspaper. He has also written for a number of other publications, including the Bergen Record and the Daily News.
He noted that his background in journalism and the fact that he has family in the medical field — his brother Eric is a doctor in a hospital in Ithaca, and his wife Barbara works at the Manhattan VA Medical Center — made the decision to litigate that much easier. “I knew who to call and they couldn’t believe what happened,” he said.
Although the suit was previously dismissed, following an appeal, it’s expected to be heard in the fall by the Court of Appeals.
“We’re hoping for some justice for ourselves, but we’re even more concerned that something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said Ken.
A spokesperson for the hospital declined to comment for this story. T&V didn’t hear back from ABC by deadline. However, a New York Times story noted the hospital’s arguments that Mark Chanko wasn’t identifiable because his face had been blurred and his voice altered.
But according to Ken, the changes to his father’s voice were minimal, leaving it recognizable.
“You could hear him moaning,” he recalled. “There a point where you hear his voice ask, ‘Does my wife know I’m here?’”
Also on the episode is the voice of the surgeon who’d tried to save him, Sebastian Schubl, as he told his patient’s waiting family behind a closed door that it was over. “We did everything we could,” he’d said. They hadn’t known Schubl was wearing a microphone while speaking with them.
He has also been named as a defendant in the suit, along with two other doctors who’d been entrusted to Mark’s care. However, the other two have since been dropped from the suit.
The article in the Times, which first reported on the Chanko case in January, also mentioned the hospital and ABC’s arguments in court filings that because the show was produced under a news division, they were protected by the First Amendment, and also said the patient’s right to privacy ended upon his death.
In an argument in defense of ABC, and in another argument defending the hospital, attorneys for each stated that the broadcast “deals with a newsworthy matter that’s within the sphere of legitimate public concern.”
The Chankos, however, disagree.
“If it happened on the street we wouldn’t have a case,” said Ken, “but a hospital is supposed to protect a person’s privacy.” He added, “If it was so newsworthy, then why did they wait 16 months to air it?”
Since the episode with Mark aired, the Chankos have also been left to wonder if the presence of TV cameras had an impact on the quality of his and other patients’ treatment.
“If anything they distracted the doctors,” said Ken. “And as a patient, why should you be burdened with the thought of, ‘Why is that patient getting so much more attention than me?’”
He added that at one point during his father’s care, Ken’s stepmother Anita had tried to run up to her husband’s gurney to hold his hand, but was prevented from doing so. Now, Ken said, she’s haunted by thoughts that the denial of access could have been to make sure she didn’t see a camera.
The hospital was cited by the state in 2013 for violating State Hospital Code on patient rights. In a letter from the State Department of Health, an acting regional program director, Kathleen Gaine stated, “The facility will be required to provide a written Plan of Correction and implement corrective measures acceptable to the Department to address these violations.”
Ken has also filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Health & Human Services, which is now in the 22nd month of its investigation.
Meanwhile, as the Chankos wait for their case’s oral arguments and briefs to be presented in the fall, they’re also hoping for the passage of recently introduced legislation that would ban hospitals from filming patients without obtaining permission first. The author of the bill is a Bayside, Queens-based Assembly Member, Ed Braunstein.
“We found the whole situation particularly disturbing,” said Braunstein, who drafted it after seeing the Times story. So far he hasn’t encountered any opposition to it in the Assembly.
“There’s some broadcast associations opposed to it,” he said, “but none of my colleagues. When I go around my district, the public wholeheartedly supports the bill.”
Ironically, the legislation was introduced before Ken had a chance to reach out to his own local elected officials for help, but naturally he welcomed it. “I want something good to come out of this if it had to happen,” Ken said.
Council Member Dan Garodnick has since also pledged to do something at the city level, either by writing a resolution or a letter to city hospitals to ask them to make it a policy to not film patients without obtaining permission beforehand.
“What his family went through should not be replicated,” said Garodnick. “If a patient and their family consents in advance it’s a different story, but don’t go filming people and then trying to get their permission. Health care shouldn’t be entertainment except on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”