Henry Chanin was just stepping out of a gondola in Venice, Italy, when the weariness descended. “I was weak as a puppy,” he remembers. “I couldn’t walk. I had no idea what was going on.” Chanin and his wife, Lorraine, were experienced travelers and urban walkers, but the mile and a half to Hotel Bonvecchiati, just off St. Mark’s Square, may as well have been a marathon. Henry walked 10 steps, sat down, walked another 10, stopped. By the time they arrived, the Chanins realized their vacation was over.
The next morning, Chanin took a wheelchair ride through Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport and boarded an early-bird flight back to Las Vegas. It was a beautiful, clear day, July 29, 2006. As the plane reached cruising altitude, Chanin sat by the window, waiting, worrying. The sunlight was warm on his face, small consolation for a journey cut short. How had he managed to catch such a sudden bug? It didn’t feel much like any flu he’d ever had, but what else could it be?
Lorraine turned to speak to him and her jaw dropped.
“My God,” she said, “you’re bright yellow.”
Days later, doctors told Chanin he had contracted Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C attacks the liver, and it often keeps attacking until the liver is finished off. In its chronic form, the virus never leaves the body, though it can be rendered inactive by intensive drug therapy. It is a blood-borne disease, and its most common causes are intravenous drug use with shared needles and accidental punctures among health-care workers. Very occasionally, Hepatitis C is contracted through sexual contact. The general advice for avoiding the virus is to steer clear of the combination of intravenous drug use, shared needles, questionable tattoo parlors and multiple sexual partnerships.
So it should have raised eyebrows when a 57-year-old school headmaster, happily married for nearly 30 years, suddenly tested positive for the disease. Sometimes symptoms of Hep C do not show up for decades as the virus quietly eats away at the liver, but when they appear quickly, it is usually within six-to-eight weeks from the time of infection. Chanin’s Venetian gondola ride had come seven weeks after he’d undergone a routine colonoscopy at Las Vegas’ Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center.
In February 2008, a full 20 months after Chanin contracted Hepatitis C, the Southern Nevada Health Department sent out letters to 50,000 patients of Desert Shadow and other clinics run by Dipak Desai, informing them they should be tested for the virus as soon as possible. Tests subsequently revealed 114 patients who may have been infected at the clinics. It was the largest Hepatitis C outbreak in U.S. history.
By that time, the disease had become a haunting, unshakeable fact of life for Chanin. He was so anxious about the possibility of passing the virus to Lorraine that at one point he suggested separate beds. (This proposal was swiftly rejected.) He was weakened by the virus itself, suffering from Stage II liver disease, and knocked on his heels by the intensive medical regime necessary to tame the virus. Each day between October 2007 and March 2008 he had two oral doses of the powerful antiviral drug ribavirin; on Friday afternoons he would have a weekend-withering injection of pegylated interferon.
“I got the weekly shot Friday at 4 p.m., came home and went to bed, knowing that I was going to have a fever when I woke up the next morning and terrible aches and pains like having the flu,” Chanin says. “Saturday was just a total wipeout; Sunday I was still in bed but feeling a little better. And I just made myself go to work Monday morning.” Chanin was assistant head of school at The Meadows School in Summerlin, a private, nonprofit K-12 academy where he is now head of school. He was also teaching two upper division English classes—“The Great American Gumshoe,” about the tradition of American detective fiction, and “The Complete Sherlock Holmes.” He never told the students what his weekends were like, or that his own curious case was only beginning.
At the heart of Chanin’s story is not the disease or the antiviral lifesaving misery or the epic lawsuit that followed, but his quixotic faith in civility, attention to detail and the drive to mastery. It is the story of a man with 19th-century values negotiating his way, with great success, through the 21st, pressing onward through the daily tide of slovenly culture and slipshod work, mastering one task after another with patience and grace and ultimately dedicating himself to helping others do it, too. Chanin’s name would wind up inextricably connected with the largest jury award in the history of Nevada. But he wasn’t looking for money when he took his case to court; he was dueling in the name of a lost world.
Chanin was born in 1948 and spent his early childhood in Brooklyn. When he was in elementary school, his family moved to Great Neck on Long Island because of the town’s excellent public schools. The city had made the decision to tax itself and spend intelligently on first-rate education, and the policy was paying dividends. “I got an education that was comparable to the education we provide at The Meadows,” he says. “The community was small enough that they could make the decision to emphasize education and put their money on it.” In 1966, he graduated from Great Neck High School, where he was a fan of English literature and a competitive swimmer (“Four-hundred yards—six minutes, then get out and throw up. I wasn’t all that good, but I stuck with it”), and enrolled at Rutgers. After a year and a half, though, he dropped out to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. “When Kennedy announced his candidacy, between the charisma and the nostalgia and everything else, this looked like a real opportunity for a change of direction. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I said, ‘Look, I just need to do this.’”
Photo by Francis + FrancisStatesman, scholar, angler: Chanin’s home office is filled with mementos of a life well lived.
On June 5, 1968, Chanin had just returned to New York from the campaign trail when he learned that Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles. The assassination came just two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and the idealistic young Chanin wasn’t quite sure where to turn. He wanted to continue his education, but he wanted to be far from everything he had ever known. He found the place—Hiram Scott College in Scottsbluff, Neb. There he met a Harvard-educated literature professor named Jac Tharpe, who took Chanin under his wing and showed him how to see beyond the surface of a text to its cultural meaning and ethical implications. Chanin wanted to be an English teacher, but reason prevailed, and upon graduation he went to Tulane for an M.B.A. One year into the program, though, he was offered a job as general manager of a chain of bookstores in New York City. He returned home and for six years he learned the art of business while living in the world of books. One of his responsibilities was to invest the company’s profits, and he became so adept that its investment income regularly outstripped its income from selling books.
In 1975, he decided it was time for a vacation and soon found himself camping in a tree hut in Rhodesia. One of the game rangers at the Wankie Safari Lodge was a young woman named Lorraine Domina, who had grown up on a chinchilla farm outside the capital city of Salisbury. She had moved to Las Vegas in 1973 with her parents and begun working as an accountant with the Department of Aviation, but she’d been homesick and returned back to Rhodesia in 1974. Chanin spent four days at the lodge, after which he and Lorraine wrote one another’s phone numbers in their respective little black books and returned to their lives.
Two years later, Lorraine was back working in Las Vegas when she dialed Henry up in New York and asked if she could visit. He had no problem with that at all. Within a year, they were married, and Henry was building a new life in Las Vegas. “I showed up in Las Vegas in 1977 and I didn’t know what I was going to do and whether I was going to end up the head lifeguard at Caesars Palace, handing out towels,” Chanin says.
Chanin never got his poolside interlude. Lorraine’s uncle by marriage, Darrel Daines, was the county comptroller at the time, and he helped Chanin find work at Burrows, Smith and Co., a small investment-banking house whose Las Vegas office was led by community pillars R. Guild Gray and Hal Smith. (Both men now have schools named for them.) Soon Chanin was traveling the back roads of Nevada, helping towns from Lovelock to Winnemucca with municipal bond issues. He loved his small-town travels, the tight-knit communities, the way folks treated him like family. He also learned that he had a knack for negotiating the intersection of finance, law and politics where municipal fundraising takes place.
In 1978, McCarran International Airport had unveiled plans for a major expansion. Chanin’s firm was enlisted to find the funding, and he became the point man for a 1982 bond issue that raised more than $300 million. It was the most money ever raised by an airport-revenue bond sale. “I was this yokel from noplace,” says Chanin, “and suddenly I’m this nationally known figure in airport finance.”
For the next 14 years, Chanin continued to shuttle back and forth between the worlds of investment banking and transportation. From 1988-90 he was Clark County Deputy Director of Aviation—he gleefully recalls this period of walking around with two radios and a big ring of keys on his belt, checking in at 3 in the morning to make sure all was as it should be, mastering the arcane language of runways and designations and instrument landing systems. In 1990, though, the city’s ground transportation pulled him away from his beloved airport.
“There was surface transportation gridlock,” he says. “The railroad, Interstate 15, and the Strip had turned into this Great Wall of China that no one could get through.” County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury had launched the effort to fix the situation, and Chanin was following developments from his post at the airport. He noticed that the county staffers tasked with pulling the plan together were having trouble coordinating the crucial trinity of finance, law and politics.
“They were talking about moonbeam stuff and offending constituencies and being too technical,” Chanin says. “So I made the mistake of asking the assistant county manager at the time to have lunch, and I said, ‘Listen, I used to do this sort of stuff, you have to do this, this and this.’ And the next thing I know, I’m not at the airport anymore; I’m working for the county manager doing this, this and this.”
The fair-share funding plan that was created, and approved by a remarkable 64 percent of voters in 1990’s Advisory Question 10, was one of the major public triumphs in county history. It provided the funds for the Beltway, the Desert Inn Super Arterial and the McCarran Airport Connector Tunnel—in short, the transportation infrastructure of modern Las Vegas.
From 1991-96, Chanin led Smith Barney’s Los Angeles office, commuting back to Las Vegas on weekends. He enjoyed the work, but found it difficult to spend so much time away from his daughters, Nancy (who is now 31 and works with autistic children for the Clark County School District) and Jamie (29, an attorney in Los Angeles). By 1996, ready to return to Las Vegas and to his old dream of teaching English, he enrolled in graduate school at UNLV. By 2001 he had completed his comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. and plunged into work on a dissertation called Mark Twain and the Myth of the West.
It appeared Chanin might become a college professor. The realities of the academic job market, though, gave him pause. “I knew that if I finished my doctorate and there was a job in Outer Fork, Georgia, I wasn’t going to go to Outer Fork, Georgia,” he says. It had crossed his mind to teach high school English, but two days of student teaching at Eldorado High School dispensed with that idea. “Content and knowledge were the last things anyone was concerned about,” he says. “Classroom management was the first. I’m sure some of the kids wanted to be there and had dreams, but they were drowned out by those who were just out-of-control and not particularly controllable.” The setting was too big, too impersonal. Perhaps Chanin’s work with Tharpe at Hiram Scott College had introduced him to an unrepeatable educational ideal, but he wanted to teach at a place where knowledge had fewer barricades to breach on its way to the soul. He returned to working on his dissertation and lecturing at UNLV.
Then The Meadows came calling, and Chanin made one more course correction. When he arrived at The Meadows as an English teacher in 2001, it didn’t take him long to fall for it. Before classes began, he had asked which books he should use for his survey of English literature class. The answer came swiftly and in grand style: What books would you like to use? “I thought I’d died and gone to educational heaven,” Chanin says. The school has rigorous requirements, but it gives teachers considerable scholarly leeway in fulfilling them. Chanin flourished in the new environment, just as he had in his previous incarnations. He became chairman of the English Department, then director of the upper school, then headmaster.
It seemed the final act of a fine play, a triumphant winding down. But next came the disease, and a turn on the most public stage of all.
Thousands of lawsuits were filed in the wake of the Great Hepatitis Outbreak. Some of them cited no grievance beyond the anxiety that came with having to be tested. Others were much more serious. The first to trial was the case of Henry Chanin.
These are the facts: Teva Pharmaceuticals is one of the world’s leading generic drug manufacturers. The company produced large vials of the anesthetic propofol, which another company, Baxter, distributed to endoscopy clinics across the nation. The vials were labeled for single use, but they contained five times the amount of anesthetic necessary for most routine colonoscopies. So rather than disposing of four doses, Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center reused the vials.
Drug vials, though, do not spontaneously bleed, and one cannot acquire Hepatitis C from untainted propofol, whether it is the first dose from the vial or the fifth. If only clean syringes are used, reused vials do not become a hazard. At some point, at least a microscopic amount of infected blood must be introduced into the vial, and this is what happened at Desert Shadow. A Nevada Department of Public Health investigation, with participation from undercover clinicians from the Centers for Disease Control, discovered that when a patient needed a second dose of propofol, the clinic’s nurse anesthetists used the same syringe to withdraw another dose from the vial. This “double dipping” could taint the leftover propofol in the vial, which was then reused for other patients.
The clinic’s practices were clearly implicated in the outbreak: Reuse of the vials saved money; the clinic had put the bottom line ahead of patient safety. But Chanin’s attorney, Robert Eglet, believed the chain of responsibility went further. Small vials—vials truly designed for single use—might have cost Teva more to produce, but they would have prevented the outbreak. The logic was simple: No big vial—no reuse; no reuse—no infection. Eglet’s angle was that oversize vials sold to endoscopy clinics essentially invited reuse and opened the possibility of misuse. The hazards, he believed, were foreseeable, and Teva’s labeling alone was not enough to eliminate them.
Photo by Mona Shield PayneThe Chanins address the media after the May 7 verdict.
Photo Courtesy of the ChaninsHenry and Lorraine Chanin’s Venetian adventure ended early when Henry showed the first symptoms of Hepatitis C.
Chanin settled with Desert Shadow; that left a product liability case against the pharmaceutical giants. Eglet proposed a $1.7 million settlement. The offer was rejected. (Desert Shadow, meanwhile, had been closed down by the city of Las Vegas in February 2008. After a series of strokes, Desai relinquished his medical license in February 2010. In May he declared bankruptcy, which put many pending suits on hold. In July he was indicted on 28 counts, including criminal neglect of patients. His trial is scheduled for March.)
The trial began on April 19 at downtown’s Regional Justice Center. Eglet showed the jury different-size vials and explained the chain of causation that led to Chanin’s infection. There were PowerPoint slides and props and emphatic gestures. The Chanins looked on uncomfortably, unaccustomed to this kind of celebrity. The trial went on for three weeks; an expert witness attached a multimillion-dollar figure to Chanin’s suffering; Eglet unleashed the sound-bite of the year when he called the large vials “weapons of mass infection.” Clark County District Court Judge Jessie Walsh had dealt Teva and Baxter a serious setback before the trial when she ruled that evidence of the clinic’s negligence was inadmissible under Nevada product liability law; the pharmaceutical companies were left without their best defense: Blame it on Desai. Finally, Eglet delivered the mortal blow. Teva and Baxter, he told the jury, knew before Chanin’s procedure that oversize vials were invitations to trouble. In 148 cases around the world, reuse of oversize propofol vials had led to infection. The companies, though, continued to market large vials to endoscopy clinics.
The Chanins won a compensatory verdict of $5.1 million. Next came the discussion of punitive damages—damages whose goal was not to make the Chanins whole but to punish the drug companies’ conduct and deter future such conduct. In his closing argument, Eglet told the jury that Teva and Baxter had a combined 2009 income of $13.2 billion. Anything less than a $1 billion verdict, he said, would be a slap on the wrist.
The Chanins are ill at ease in a culture of heedless self-revelation; they regret that one cannot browse the produce aisle without initiation into the private details of the next shopper’s very public cell-phone conversation. The trial, though, put their personal lives at the center of bruising public debate. Suddenly a strong man had to speak openly about the ways in which he’d been weakened; Chanin had to testify about the impact of the disease on his sex life, about his fear that he could pass the virus to Lorraine. People deeply ignorant of the nature of Hepatitis C wondered whether Chanin should be in contact with students. A man who had turned away from a lucrative career in finance to devote himself to literature and education was publicly ridiculed as a money-grubber and a symbol of all that was wrong with the American tort system.
On May 7, the jury awarded the Chanins more than $500 million. The fantastic verdict was front-page news; the reports dissected the largest tort award in the history of Nevada, parsed the legal niceties, and, perhaps unavoidably, reflected the way litigation transforms personal tragedy into generic farce: Man walks in for a colonoscopy and leaves without a liver. But at least they’re going to pay him for it. One story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal was followed by comments from more than 150 readers, only 14 of whom had anything nice to say about Chanin. He was called a jackpotter, a dirt bag, a crook, a bad role model. It’s generally a bad idea to pass judgment on a man when the only thing you know about him is that he’s due half a billion.
Chanin does not yet have his $500 million, and it’s quite possible he will never get it. Teva and Baxter have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, and if the appeal fails they will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, at which point Justice Scalia, or perhaps Justice Scalia’s grandson, will weigh in and the half billion could disappear as swiftly as it appeared. In the absence of a police state, we rely on civil law to punish and deter greed and negligence, double-dealing and cheating. But in its less alluring guise, civil law also reduces misfortune to money and then reduces money to imaginary money; all too often it is a battlefield where the primary casualty is precious time, which is why attorneys bill by the hour. Nevertheless, note this: On May 28, Teva announced that it would no longer produce propofol, claiming that the drug was not profitable. The brief Associated Press report did not mention the case of Henry Chanin.
Chanin’s $500 million is a fact in the same way Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark is a fact; it is the absence that clears the space around a deeper truth. And the deeper truth about Chanin emerges precisely when you consider his relationship to the missing money: He doesn’t need it, didn’t lust for it. You will never meet a man more placid about the possibility of losing half a billion he never had. He wanted to ensure that what had happened to him, and to the other infected Las Vegans, would never happen again. He wanted to force those who had grown comfortable in their bottom-line thinking to pause and consider the consequences. He thought he was fighting the good fight against heedlessness and bad faith. Chanin is a teacher, and if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s a cheat.
On a chilly, clear November day, the third-graders at The Meadows School walk in orderly lines across the school’s main quad and into the newly built gym. The girls are in navy blue plaid skirts, the boys in crisp white shirts and navy plaid ties. High spirits kick in, and soon the kids are doing the things most third-graders do in P.E.—bouncing one of those textured dark-red multipurpose balls back and forth, hopping, skipping, shouting. Chanin looks on with a smile; when you see 50 rumpled little kids roughhousing in semi-formal attire, you either blush for them or laugh with them, and Chanin chooses laughter.
Photo courtesy The Meadows SchoolChanin in his element with students at The Meadows School.
He gets around the sprawling campus in a golf cart now; his stamina is not what it was before the Hepatitis C, and joint pain persists as a probable side effect of interferon. (Chanin had hip-replacement surgery Dec. 14.) But he is in good spirits: The grueling medical regime has paid off, and the virus is inactive (though there is a 5 percent chance it will flare up again). And while litigation trudges on, Chanin does not need to play any further role in it. “It was really scary,” he says. “My wife and I are really private people. We would rather have been staked out on an anthill in Borneo than go through this circus.” Life has returned, more or less, to normal; for Chanin, that means a continued love affair with his place of work, where he became head of school in July.
It is by design that The Meadows evokes visions of the East Coast in, say, 1960. The school was founded by Carolyn Goodman in 1984, and was built around her desire to import the richness and rigor of her own experiences at Manhattan’s prestigious Brearley School. In an age of globalization and cultural relativism, The Meadows stresses Western Civ and English Lit; in a time of grade inflation, it is unafraid to saddle its star high school students with the odd “C” in Advanced Placement physics. For the younger children, there are no holistic units or arts-based curricula; instead there are five years of the three “R’s” and a dogged commitment to make sure that they reach middle school as able readers, writers and mathematical problem-solvers. The school is so traditional that it is experimental. Goodman, who retired as head of school last summer, and her handpicked successor, Chanin, are a new breed that one might call radical traditionalists.
Chanin is a lover of old movies, Victorian sleuths, great-man-in-history biographies and Winston Churchill, who—as Chanin says with an English teacher’s awe—“fought the first 18 months of World War II with words.” His traditionalism comes with a dose of mischievous joy: He likes Watson because he’s the consummate Victorian gentleman, but he likes Holmes because he’s the oddball who gets the job done. Chanin admires a well-wrought Broadway song; he once took his daughters trick-or-treating in that funky half-mask from The Phantom of the Opera. He’s been known to erupt into spontaneously composed satirical showtunes over holiday dinners.
He’s no prude, but he believes the post-Victorian world threw the baby out with the bathwater and left us with a less civil society. He believes that the way we dress shows our respect or disdain for the people around us. He believes that what matters is the task, not the reward; a diploma should speak not only of time passed, but of barriers crossed and character acquired. And it should be more than a stepping-stone to greater income. Plenty of teachers use the word “citizenship” as part of educational jargon; Chanin uses it the old-fashioned way—he honestly wants to build better Americans.
“I often have young, idealistic teachers who find at The Meadows that they have great kids who are really eager to learn and great parents and all the resources, and they start feeling guilty,” he says. “They say, ‘One of the reasons I got into teaching is that I wanted to help the world. This is so cushy; maybe I need to be in the inner city fighting a battle of some kind,’ and I say to them, ‘You have to realize how important your work here is. It’s these kids who are going to make the world whatever it’s going to be in the next generation. It’s these kids who are going to decide whether it’s kindness or crudeness that runs society, whether it’s greed or something else that drives their ambitions. You have the ability to influence that.’”