Few saw warning signs in case of Hopkins doctor accused of secretly taping patients
Fanya O'Donoghue had just learned she was pregnant when she happened to meet a group of nurses at a social gathering. She was looking for an obstetrician, and asked them whom they would recommend.
"All six of them said, 'Dr. [Nikita] Levy,'" she recalled.
Even now, after allegations that Levy photographed patients during exams, followed by the doctor's apparent suicide last Monday, O'Donoghue can't bring herself to believe those nurses steered her wrong.
For her, Levy is still the kind, dryly funny doctor who drove through the "snowmageddon" of February 2010 when she went into labor with her firstborn — who shepherded her through her next pregnancy with twins and celebrated their happy deliveries.
"He handed our children to us," said O'Donoghue, 35, who with her husband has three young sons. "I keep thinking this can't be true."
Like others who knew the 54-year-old Levy, O'Donoghue said it was hard to reconcile the warm and caring physician she knew as the same person now alleged to have violated his patients' trust and privacy. While it is not known what kinds of photos and videos Levy took, police say they seized an "extraordinary amount" of evidence from his home 11/2 weeks before he killed himself.
Patients and friends say Levy seemed devoted to his wife, Sandra, a nurse at Hopkins, and their three children. The Jamaican-born New Yorker had moved to Baltimore in 1988, bringing his love of the Yankees with him, and he and his wife were fixtures at their oldest son's baseball games at Friends School in Baltimore, they said.
"Even though they were busy, it seemed they would always make it to his games," said Will Harrington, 26, who graduated from the North Baltimore school in 2005 with Nikita Levy Jr.
"Everybody was pretty shocked by what we read recently. Because everybody in that family is the nicest, most generous," Harrington said. "It just doesn't seem like it is feasible that someone that raised such good kids could do something so fundamentally wrong."
Dr. Levy "was always a super nice guy," Harrington said. "I've had plenty of friends whose parents are doctors or do something in that field. Some kind of come off as standoffish or have that 'I'm better than everyone' mentality. I remember meeting him in high school. He was a nice, normal guy, not ever coming off as better than anyone."
Colleagues at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, which offers medical care at clinics throughout the state, largely refused to comment last week. Levy was part of a close-knit office at the community physicians' East Baltimore Medical Center at 1000 E. Eager St., and patients said they also saw him at Hopkins' outpatient center on Caroline Street.
Levy often wore a ratty Yankees baseball cap, and arrived at work every day with a lunch packed for him by his wife, recalled Nicole Christian, a nurse who said she worked with Levy from 2000 to 2005.
"We see him as a funny guy, a lifesaver," Christian said. "This is a great loss for us," she said of the community of doctors and nurses who over the years delivered babies together and got together outside work a couple of times a year.
Levy's office at the outpatient center "seemed like a wonderful place to work," said O'Donoghue. "They were a family."
Even as she dreads every phone call now, thinking it could be police telling her she was identified in a photograph by Levy, O'Donoghue remembers how much "respect and friendship" she felt from him.
She sent Levy Christmas cards every year, and remembers taking a picture of him to capture the surprise and joy they felt when, less than a year after her oldest son was born, she learned she was pregnant again — and with twins, a sonogram showed.
"He was a more serious version of Dr. Huxtable, without the bad sweaters," O'Donoghue said of "The Cosby Show" character. "He had the warmth and the humor."
Levy, who became a naturalized citizen some 30 years ago, had lived in Queens and graduated from the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. He went on to complete his residency at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn before joining the Hopkins physician group in Baltimore.
Several medical school classmates, who hadn't seen him since their 1984 graduation, described him with words like "quiet" and "calm."
"He was a caring person who was well-liked by his peers," said Dr. Scott Hayworth of Mount Kisco, N.Y. "He was never inappropriate."
Hayworth, who has held several leadership roles with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said he had never seen Levy at any of the group's meetings over the years. Representatives of the Maryland chapter of ACOG, as well as several Baltimore and Maryland medical societies, also said Levy was not a member.
Although they shared an Upper East Side apartment a block from the medical school for several years, Dr. Teddy Tong, who practices in Southern California, said he never got to know Levy very well.
"He was a quiet individual," said Tong, an ophthalmologist. "On weekends, he would return home, I believe to Queens."
Former patients say Levy gave them his pager number so they could always call him with any questions or concerns.
O'Donoghue said that when she went into labor during the 2010 blizzard, she contacted Levy and he called her three times as he tried to get to Hopkins Hospital. Realizing he might not make it in time, he called his wife, a nurse at Hopkins, who rushed to the delivery room.
"She held my hand," O'Donoghue said, and helped calm her during the delivery.
Levy had performed a procedure to turn around the fetus, which was in a breech position, allowing her to avoid a cesarean and deliver vaginally as she had hoped, O'Donoghue said.
Even as O'Donoghue tries to cope with the latest revelations, she said she mostly feels sadness, for the loss of her doctor and for the wife and children he left behind.
"My heart just breaks for them, he was so proud of them," she said. "The sad part for me is the thought of his memory being tarnished."
Levy and his wife purchased their large, brick, Colonial-style home in the 900 block of Hampton Lane in Towson area in 1992 for $420,000, according to state records. Now assessed at $750,000, the house sits on a wooded lot on the busy street, across from Notre Dame Preparatory School.
It was there that police were called, shortly after 7 a.m. Monday, by Sandra Levy, who had awakened to find that her husband had apparently killed himself after two turbulent weeks.
Alerted by an employee on Feb. 4, Hopkins officials said they discovered that Levy had been "illegally and without our knowledge photographing his patients and possibly others." The following day, he was "quietly escorted" off Hopkins property — his access to patients suspended, Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said.
Police searched Levy's home Feb. 7 and seized multiple hard drives and servers, and Hopkins fired him the next day. On Feb. 11, Hopkins sent a letter to Levy's patients saying he was no longer with the practice, and a week later, after police cleared the release of more information, sent a second and more detailed letter, Hoppe said.
Levy's wife had previously called police to the home on Feb. 13, saying he had been acting strangely since his firing, a source told The Sun. No police report was made after that call.
Sandra Levy called police to the house again last Monday, after finding her husband in the basement with a plastic bag taped over his head and a hose attached to a helium tank. He had left a note asking for her forgiveness in his car, a 2001 BMW. She told police that she had unsuccessfully begged Levy to get psychiatric help, a source said.
Several patients said they can't imagine how Levy could have photographed them, given that there generally was a nurse in the room during exams. Also, they said, there are a number of examination rooms, and they weren't always taken to the same one.
For some patients, Levy was also something of a neighbor, having worked for decades at the East Baltimore clinic that opened in 1979 to serve thousands of low-income residents in the area. It was a signature project of the East Baltimore Community Corp., led by Clarence H. Du Burns — a city councilman who became mayor — and other members of the east-side African-American political establishment.
Financial problems left it about $3 million in debt to Hopkins Hospital, which agreed to take over the medical center in the early 1980s. It remains a bustling operation, with a steady stream of people coming and going on a recent afternoon, from elderly patients using walkers to mothers pushing strollers.
"It plays a very important role," said Mary Ross, director of the Johnston Square Community Development Corp. "Large numbers of people do utilize it."
Rinnay Johnson, who lives several blocks away, became Levy's patient there about 20 years ago, and she also sees a primary-care physician and dentist at the center. She called there last week to make an appointment for her annual gynecological exam, and was instead referred to another specialist.
"I'm still in shock," she said of the allegations against Levy. "When you go to the doctor's office, you don't think anything like that could happen."
Johnson said Levy was both warm and professional, and after visits, she liked to pray with him. She didn't know if he was religious, but he would acknowledge her sentiments.
"I would pray that he would have a good day," she said. "He had an overload of so many patients."
Another patient, Monet Cleamons, said she had just seen Levy Jan. 21, when he went over some MRI results with her. She had paged him about two weeks ago, and, not hearing back from him as she usually did, called the office. The person who answered told Cleamons that Levy was on extended leave and that she would be seen by another physician.
"I was heartbroken," she said when she learned of the allegations and Levy's subsequent death. "It was devastating. I'm still in disbelief."
When Cleamons, 22, first started seeing Levy three years ago, she had already undergone two surgeries and other treatments for endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus and can cause pain and sometimes infertility.
"I was scared, and he really showed everything that would be done," said Cleamons, a nursing assistant. Levy performed a laparoscopy on her in 2011, she said, and closely monitored her condition afterward.
"I really trusted Dr. Levy, and I felt totally comfortable with him," she said. "I would always ask him how the wife and kids were doing, and he was telling me that if I ever have a baby, I better stick with him so he could deliver it."
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