Despite arrests dating back to 2014, the Texas Medical Board allowed him to keep practicing until December 2022.
Jennifer Thompson crouched in the upstairs of her boyfriend’s home in Austin, Texas, on a cloudy Monday afternoon in May 2014. She frantically called 911 to report that she’d been beaten and strangled after she said he falsely accused her of cheating.
“I thought I was going to die,” she recalls telling the operator.
Austin police coaxed the 25-year-old woman from the bedroom — still so terrified that she raised her hands as if surrendering.
Officers reported that the medical school student told them that her boyfriend, an accomplished 44-year-old Austin surgeon, repeatedly strangled her so hard with both hands that she felt dizzy. She said he had repeatedly thrown her into the wall and punched her in the face.
The officers documented Thompson’s swollen right eye and the red marks on her chest, forehead and neck — “like finger marks.”
Dr. Aravind Sankar, who had asked Thompson on a date while she said he was her attending physician supervisor at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center, eventually admitted to biting Thompson, documents say. Officers arrested him on an assault charge.
Thompson’s report marked the first of five times police arrested Sankar from 2014 to 2019 on six domestic violence-related charges against three different women he worked with. In two of the cases, he pleaded guilty and received a form of probation. Four cases are awaiting trial.
For nearly a decade, the state agency tasked with overseeing physicians allowed Sankar to continue practicing even as he faced multiple criminal charges for domestic violence. The state finally suspended his license indefinitely in December 2022 only after a felony conviction for assault, family violence. If the board decided to end his suspension, Sankar could in theory begin practicing again.
A review of state agency records, court documents dating back almost a decade, and multiple interviews found potentially dangerous flaws in a process that is supposed to keep patients and other medical staff safe from doctors with criminal backgrounds.
The Texas Medical Board receives an average of 5,554 complaints against physicians every year, the review by the Austin American-Statesman, a member of the USA TODAY Network, found.
On average, the board opens 1,578 investigations a year into physicians based on those complaints. Of the total complaints, only about 1% result in license revocations or suspensions.
The Texas Medical Board has broad legal authority to suspend or restrict a physician’s license when the doctor is deemed a continuing threat to the public.
But a Statesman examination of Sankar's case found he likely benefited from the board’s conservative approach to disciplining physicians. The slow accountability process allowed Sankar to remain in a position that put other colleagues in harm’s way.
The board says it prioritizes allegations against doctors that involve direct-patient care and not off-duty conduct. It generally waits for a criminal case to be resolved before acting, even if it takes years, concerned that its involvement might jeopardize the case.
The agency says it also must weigh the need to preserve a doctor's right to practice with allegations that could later not be proven. And it must consider the legal risks or embarrassment should a doctor appeal to the State Office of Administrative Hearings or a district judge.
The board did not know about his first arrest until years afterward, because Sankar did not self-report it, as required, board records show. The board requires such disclosures when physicians renew their licenses every other year. Sankar also is among 75,000 Texas physicians licensed before the state in 2007 required all doctors to be fingerprinted so that arrest reports can be automatically matched with licensing records.
In a statement, the board said cases like Sankar’s pose a unique challenge, but it declined to elaborate, saying the matter is “ongoing.”
Kelsey McKay, an attorney and victims advocate working with the women, said the Texas Medical Board failed her clients by allowing Sankar to remain in a position of power.
“By not utilizing the power they possess, many victims feel that TMB did not take their reports seriously and disregarded the risk that Dr. Sankar posed for their welfare and the safety of the community,” McKay said.
Although allegations against Sankar do not involve patients, experts say his behavior should alarm those in his care. In statements, both hospitals in Austin that employed Sankar said they took appropriate action when they learned of the allegations against him.
“Giving someone like that a pass and allowing them to continue practicing after pleading guilty to those charges — irrespective of whatever the particular legal loopholes are — is downright terrifying to me,” said Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, who teaches medical ethics at the Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.
Sankar declined to comment for this story, as did three of his attorneys whom the Statesman approached over the course of several months through phone calls, text messages, emails and in person.
In a sentencing hearing last year, Sankar told state District Judge Jennifer Peña, “I’m just sorry that this happened … to all the women that have had issues with me.”
Thompson, who separated from Sankar in 2016, said she remains disappointed in how slowly the Texas Medical Board acted and that it has only suspended his license, not revoked it.
“I would hope that they could do better,” she said.
Dr. Sankar and his relationships
Sankar, 53, was born and raised in California after his parents emigrated from India.
He obtained his bachelor's degree from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and moved to Texas to study medicine. Sankar received his medical degree in 1995 from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
He moved to Austin in 1999 and began building his career in Central Texas. He worked for Austin Diagnostic Clinic, and later Surgical Associates of Austin, burnishing his resume as a prominent surgeon performing high-risk surgeries such as kidney transplants.
As his career grew, Sankar’s tumultuous love life and work became intertwined. Three women, all of whom he met at work, turned to law enforcement when they said his controlling behavior turned violent.
In 2014, Sankar became involved with Thompson, a medical student two decades his junior who worked under him.
At first, she said, he was kind and exciting, taking her on romantic weekend getaways. Several weeks into their relationship, she saw red flags. He scrolled through her text messages and accused her of cheating.
After he was released from jail following the first violent incident, she said, he came to her door with tearful apologies.
“He told me he had never been violent with anyone before and was very believable, so I thought it was a one-time incident,” Thompson said. “I decided to give him another chance.”
The relationship resumed while Sankar’s felony assault charge was pending.
The abuse continued, she said.
"He always blamed me for his violent behavior,” she said. “That something I said or did made him angry and act out. This was his way of explaining to me why he was being violent. I started to believe it was my fault.”
In 2015, while he continued to see Thompson, Sankar began a relationship with Dr. Jessica Wilson. The two met while she was a medical student at St. David's North Austin Medical Center and while she said he was her supervisor.
“He opened up to me about his struggles with his relationship with Jennifer (Thompson),” Wilson said. Wilson was 30, and Sankar was 46.
Wilson broke up with Sankar when she learned Thompson was pregnant with their second child. Thompson left Sankar in the summer of 2016 after their second child was born.
“I decided to remove myself from the situation because I didn’t want the kids exposed to violence,” Thompson said.
Two years after Thompson first called police, the case remained pending and the Texas Medical Board was unaware of the allegations against him, despite requirements that he self-report such information, records show.
Wilson began dating him again.
The first time Wilson said Sankar became violent with her was on New Year's Eve 2017. An argument suddenly became physical, she said.
“He started yelling and grabbed the back of my neck really hard and pushed me forward a little bit,” said Wilson.
"He had never done that to me before," she said. Sankar grabbed her by the jacket and threw her to the floor, she said.
She tried to leave and bent down to pick up her keys. Sankar knocked her to the floor on her back and held her down by the collar, she said.
"He had me by the neck and was standing over me," she said. "I was really afraid he was going to start slamming my head into the ground."
Wilson grabbed her phone and began to dial 911.
“He saw my phone in my hand and dropped me to the ground,” she said. “I got up and ran out and got in my car. I remember shaking so badly I couldn’t even drive at first.”
She drove four blocks away, called her parents, and told them what happened. She decided not to call the police.
A week later, Wilson met Sankar for coffee.
"He told me how sorry he was," she said. He promised to stop drinking and start going to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We slowly started seeing each other again,” she said.
Arrest documents show that while he was dating Wilson, Sankar began a relationship with a nurse at St. David’s. Their relationship ended in June 2018, when she called 911 to report that he had injured her.
The two of them had an argument while they were lying in bed, she told police.
Sankar got upset and grabbed her by the hair, an arrest affidavit shows. She ran into a bathroom, and he grabbed her by her ankles and pulled her to the ground, she told police.
As she tried to call 911, Sankar threw her phone into the toilet, the affidavit said.
That criminal case against Sankar is still pending in a Travis County court, records show. The woman declined to be identified while the case is active.
A few months later, in September 2018, Sankar pleaded guilty to the 2014 assault against Thompson.
Former state District Judge David Crain, as part of a negotiated plea deal between prosecutors and Sankar’s defense, put the doctor on probation and placed his conviction on hold — a punishment referred to as deferred adjudication.
Crain gave Sankar six years of probation. During that time, he could not commit any other crimes, he had to avoid drugs and alcohol, and had to report to a supervision officer. Crain also ordered Sankar to perform 75 hours of community service, attend counseling classes concerning family violence, and banned Sankar from having any threatening or harassing contact with Thompson.
While on probation, Sankar continued seeing Wilson.
In November 2018, Wilson said, Sankar assaulted her again. This time, she decided to press charges.
The two argued about Sankar having a relationship with another woman. Wilson told him to leave, and he refused.
During the argument, Sankar “grabbed her by both her arms and pinned them to her sides, restraining her,” an arrest affidavit says. They continued to argue, and Sankar “grabbed her by the sides of her face and roughly pressed his forehead against hers.”
Sankar eventually agreed to leave. But he came back.
He forced his way into her home in San Antonio, the affidavit says.
Wilson repeatedly told Sankar to leave, and he refused. She eventually said he could stay as long as he left her alone.
She went to bed, and Sankar followed her and continued to argue. Wilson elbowed Sankar to make him stop, and he sexually assaulted her, she told police.
Two days later, she went to a domestic violence shelter and reported what happened.
“He has the capability to manipulate people to this extreme level,” Wilson said.
San Antonio police arrested Sankar the next day and charged him with sexual assault. He was released on bond.
Nine months later, in August 2019, Travis County prosecutors filed charges related to the alleged attack on Wilson on New Year’s Eve 2017, and he was arrested again.
In 2022, Sankar pleaded guilty to an assault charge stemming from the alleged sexual assault on Wilson. In court, Sankar offered an apology.
"(Wilson) was angry with me and asked me to leave. I didn't leave," Sankar told the judge. "I just was very scared and fearful at the time, for a variety of different reasons. I grabbed her and shook her. Grabbed her by her arms and shook her. I think I grabbed her nose as well. The main thing was I just stayed when I should have left."
Dr. Keith Kesler, a psychiatrist based in Austin who treated Sankar, testified during the 2022 hearing that Sankar wanted to feel in control — "a feature and a bug" of his medical training.
Texas Medical Board process
Until the 2022 conviction, more than eight years after Thompson’s first encounter, Sankar kept practicing. His case illustrates how a doctor's criminal actions can escape scrutiny.
If a physician doesn’t disclose an arrest, or if the crimes are unresolved for years, Texas regulators can be slow to take action. The medical board is only required to take immediate action if it becomes aware of an offense against a child.
Jon Porter, an Austin attorney who represents health care professionals in licensing matters, said the board is often correct to act slowly and deliberately. Many accusations, he said, are frivolous beefs from patients not satisfied with plastic surgery or relatives who disagree with the medications a doctor prescribed to a loved one. Baseless accusations can tarnish a doctor’s reputation and livelihood, he said.
“Anybody can file a complaint,” he said. “All you have to do is make a telephone call or send an email and it’s there.”
The first action the medical board took in Sankar's case was in April 2019, five years after Thompson filed charges against him and about six months after his conviction in that case. It remains unclear how the board learned about the case since Sankar did not report it.
The board publicly reprimanded Sankar, but it allowed him to continue practicing by taking four hours of ethics and four hours of risk management.
In that reprimand, the board also noted that Sankar had failed to disclose his arrests as required in his license renewal paperwork in 2014 and 2016. The document noted, as “mitigating information,” that he had undergone inpatient care in Houston for six weeks for “major depression and PTSD.”
“(Sankar) is currently engaged in aftercare, intensive outpatient therapy, and stated that it has helped him better understand himself,” the document said.
Sankar should not have been allowed to practice medicine after he pleaded guilty in 2018 to assault family violence involving Thompson, said Boyd, the medical ethics expert.
“This person, to my eye, just from the 2014 charges, even before you have a laundry list of other ones, is a danger to society,” Boyd said.
The medical board currently fingerprints doctors when they’re licensed. If a physician is arrested, the board is immediately alerted. But the board has only fingerprinted doctors for the last 15 years.
Sankar, who received his license in 1995, was not fingerprinted, so his arrests did not trigger an alert for the Texas Medical Board.
Advocates contend the board or lawmakers should enact a policy requiring all physicians be fingerprinted for a faster alert system.
The board said in a statement that it often waits until the outcome of a criminal case “due to the circumstances surrounding the alleged offense, availability of witnesses and evidence, or a need to not jeopardize the criminal proceedings.”
Even after the 2019 reprimand, when the board became aware of accusations against Sankar, McKay said no one tried to interview her clients, who were willing to provide statements.
Wilson tried to persuade the medical board to do more after Sankar’s 2019 reprimand. In an email to litigation manager Christopher Palazola in May 2020, Wilson wrote that the “action was not enough to deter future violence from him or others in his position. As a practicing physician myself, I am disgusted this type of behavior is allowed within our licensing practices.”
"I think that everybody in health care realizes how rampant intimate partner violence is," she told the Statesman. "If we're not able to stand up against it within our own licensing practices, how do we ever expect to address it as a public health issue?"
Palazola responded in an email to Wilson: “Often we get complaints at the time the incident occurs or is reported to law enforcement. For conduct directly harmful to patients or that show a clear impairment, we MAY be able to take emergency, immediate action.”
He added: “I understand the criminal justice system is excruciatingly slow. But, this is the process we must follow in most cases.”
However, while the board often chooses to act slowly, there is no legal requirement for it to do so.
In July 2018, St. David's North Austin Medical Center revoked Sankar’s privileges within days of his arrest and charges involving the nurse. Hospitals and other facilities are not required to notify the board when it learns of a doctor’s arrest, and it is not clear whether St. David’s did so in Sankar’s case.
“We take matters of this nature very seriously,” St. David’s HealthCare said in a statement. “The medical staff leadership took appropriate actions based on the circumstances and the medical staff policies in place at the time of the respective incidents.”
Months later, Sankar accepted a job in 2019 as an attending physician about 30 minutes away at the Hospital at Westlake Medical Center, where he was asked to be the chief medical officer during the pandemic. In 2021, he was appointed chief of staff.
Sankar lost that job at Westlake Medical Center in the summer of 2022 after the Austin American-Statesman in June reported on his jailing following his guilty plea in Wilson’s case in San Antonio.
Westlake Medical Center declined to comment, instead releasing a statement: "It should be noted that while he was here, Dr. Sankar provided patients with above-standard care."
When Sankar faced sentencing last June in the case involving Wilson, Peña, the judge, noted how Sankar had “gone this far, this long, without any real consequences.”
Peña sentenced Sankar to 180 days in jail, as part of the 10 years of probation she gave him.
Car crash, DWI
Sankar’s conviction in San Antonio landed him in front of the medical board again, and Wilson reached out to the board to make sure it was aware.
“‘I would like them to please take action now,’” Wilson told the board.
Then, on Dec. 13, 2022, behind the closed doors of a sterile state office, the board suspended Sankar’s license.
Hours later, Sankar landed in the Travis County Jail again.
At 8:30 p.m., Sankar drove his blue 2019 Audi south on Burnet Road in Austin when he lost control.
"I was just sitting at a red light, and I heard screeching tires," said Bethany Trimarco, 29, then 22 weeks pregnant. Sankar made a sharp turn, then T-boned Trimarco’s vehicle, she said.
Sankar was one of several people who rushed up to her vehicle and overheard her husband over the phone informing bystanders that she was pregnant, she said.
Sankar put both his hands on his head and cursed while he walked around in a circle, Trimarco recalled in an interview.
When first responders arrived at the scene, "he just kept talking over the firefighters, trying really hard to get me to think that I was OK," she said.
Sankar also tried to talk the firefighters into letting him leave the scene, she said.
"He's like, 'Well, I only live however many miles down the road if they need me. I can always just come back.' They said, 'No, you need to stay,'" she said.
An Austin police officer noted a strong odor of alcohol on Sankar, according to court documents. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot, his words slurred and difficult to understand, the officer wrote in a report.
"I was told he received bad news today," the officer noted.
Sankar told the officer he was coming from Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a bar just north of the crash scene. He refused a breath test, but he was booked on a DWI charge.
After the crash, Trimarco had to undergo physical therapy to deal with the pain, she said. Her family of six was without a vehicle for weeks because their Ford Explorer was totaled.
It's unclear whether the Texas Medical Board will open a new case file on Sankar to possibly revoke his license once his DWI charge is finalized in court.
The drunken driving arrest prompted Travis County prosecutors to seek to revoke Sankar’s probation from his conviction in the 2014 case, which stipulated that he should avoid alcohol and could not be arrested again.
State District Judge Chantal Eldridge could sentence him to jail time.
In recent months, the women who accused Sankar said they have increasingly discovered their own voices for advocacy, including talking publicly about their experiences and making calls for more aggressive accountability measures. Thompson and Wilson said they planned to attend a court hearing to see what happens next.
“It’s about accountability,” Thompson said. “I want the Texas Medical Board to hold abusive doctors accountable for their behavior.”
Wilson added: “I just want TMB to change their process so that patients and female health care workers are safe and can be aware. We want them to do their job, and they are not.”
Former Statesman staff writer Katie Hall contributed to this report.