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Maryland doctor-delegate tuned in twice from operating room to participate in legislative meetings

Delegate Dr. Terri Hill of Howard County, a plastic surgeon, apparently testifies about bill she is sponsoring during a bill hearing from an operating room.

A state lawmaker who is also a surgeon has twice tuned into Maryland General Assembly committee meetings from an operating room during a legislative session in which many hearings and votes have been held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Del. Terri Hill’s Zoom account was logged into a March 12 meeting of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee for about an hour, it showed multiple gowned and masked figures moving about, with sets of operating room lights visible on the screen.

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And in February, Hill stepped away from a patient in an operating room to briefly present a bill to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Both meetings were streamed on the General Assembly’s website and YouTube channel, as are all committee hearings and voting sessions.

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Hill said Monday that in both cases, her patients’ privacy and safety were protected while she participated in surgery and legislative meetings simultaneously.

“Had there been any safety or privacy concerns, then I wouldn’t have done it,” said Hill, a Democrat representing parts of Howard and Baltimore counties.

A frame grab from the March 12 meeting of the Maryland House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee shows Del. Terri Hill's feed from an operating room on the upper right.
A frame grab from the March 12 meeting of the Maryland House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee shows Del. Terri Hill's feed from an operating room on the upper right. (handout)

Hill, a plastic surgeon, said she had the patients’ permission to Zoom into the meetings. She declined to say what type of procedures she performed or where they took place.

“I’m a little surprised that this is becoming a big deal because there are no privacy issues. There are no attention-to-duty issues and there’s no dereliction-of-duty issues,” she said. “So, the only issue is people’s perception of what could or could not or must or must not have been going on.”

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Asked about the delegate appearing in committee from an operating room, Democratic House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said in a statement: “I understand part-time legislators have other responsibilities during the 90-day session, but I strongly encourage members to not participate in hearings or voting sessions if they aren’t able to be fully attentive to the issues before them.”

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Health and Government Operations Committee, said she did not realize during the voting session that Hill’s camera showed her in an operating room.

Had Hill discussed the possibility of Zooming in from the operating room with her beforehand, Pendergrass said she would have advised: “You want to be focused on your committee when you are in committee and you want to be focused on your surgery when you are in surgery. If you have to miss a voting session, that’s unfortunate, but I understand you have another job.”

During the voting session, Hill was recorded voting in favor of several bills during the session. In that committee, delegates who are present do not have to affirmatively vote in favor of bills. Only those who are voting against a bill are required to use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature, so that the staff can ensure their votes are recorded.

During the earlier hearing when Hill presented her bill, that committee’s chairman, Del. Kumar Barve, did take note of the situation. Hill wore a mask, head covering and face shield as she spoke, according to the video.

“Before we start the timer, are you at work? What’s going on here?” asked Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

“I’m at work, yes,” Hill responded. “You’re at work, I’m at work.”

“All right, cool,” Barve said. “Go for it.”

After Hill’s brief testimony, she said she had to return to her work. “Thank you, Doctor-Delegate,” Barve said.

The General Assembly is a part-time legislature with lawmakers earning an annual salary of $50,330. Most delegates and senators juggle careers with their legislative duties, though some are retired and others consider themselves full-time lawmakers.

Due to the pandemic, the House has held all of its committee bill hearings and voting sessions over the Zoom videoconferencing platform, with delegates participating from remote locations.

For most meetings, the livestreams show a grid display of all of the delegates. They appear from a variety of locations: their Annapolis offices, Annapolis-area hotel rooms, their homes and, occasionally, in vehicles. At times, lawmakers’ children have appeared on screen.

The Senate has been holding its bill hearings via Zoom, then meeting in person in Annapolis committee rooms for voting sessions. During voting, senators sit masked and divided by plastic partitions, and those sessions also are streamed online.

“We’re all trying to negotiate how to both take advantage of the opportunity Zoom gives us to participate and do jobs — where before we’d have to be in one place or the other — and to maximize transparency, responsibility to the constituency and to our jobs and safety. And in my case, privacy,” Hill said.

This isn’t the first time a surgeon has appeared in a public proceeding via video from an operating room during the pandemic. In California, a plastic surgeon appeared in a traffic court hearing in February via videoconference from an operating room, according to The Sacramento Bee newspaper.

In that instance, a court clerk asked Dr. Scott Green whether he was ready to proceed with his case.

“Yes, I’m in an operating room right now. I’m available for trial. Go right ahead,” he said, according to the newspaper.

But the case was postponed, with Sacramento Superior Court Commissioner Gary Link saying he did not “feel comfortable for the welfare of the patient.”

Green later said that he had completed his portion of the surgery and was observing another surgeon stitching up the patient when his turn came up in court, according to an account on the WebMD website.

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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