When Medicine is Murder

The Struggle to Bring Bad Doctors to Justice

Leah Grove said "inhalation therapy" felt like riding a magic carpet. Perhaps that's why she continued the treatment in the face of common sense—and her own violent physical reaction. She would thrash, shake, and gasp for breath as her psychiatrist, a 73-year-old named James Watt, held a mask to her face and began administering the combination of gases that was supposed to help her recover repressed childhood memories. Twice, the 38-year-old computer sales executive threw up immediately after the sessions. On one occasion, Grove even punched Watt in the face, which led him to suggest that she bring someone along to the appointments to help restrain her.

And so it was that Kevin O'Brien, who was living with Grove at the time, ended up in Watt's East 46th Street office on a mild afternoon last April, straddling his girlfriend's knees and holding her arms while the doctor held the mask over her face, cranked up the dial attached to it, and administered a combination of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide that sent her into a twilight state.

Sometimes Grove saw geometric shapes in this netherworld—visions of icicles that would shatter and re-form into mosaic patterns. Watt, who could not be reached for this story, had said his $150-per-session treatments might also bring back her buried past—and, with it, a cure for Grove's mild depression, which had resisted both Zoloft and talk therapy for years. It was his desire to help his girlfriend in this quest, O'Brien says now, that convinced him to use his 175-pound frame to pin Grove down that day.

Leah Grove died after a bizarre gas treatment administered by her psychiatrist.
Leah Grove died after a bizarre gas treatment administered by her psychiatrist.

O'Brien's heft didn't turn out to be necessary. Grove did struggle for breath, but after writhing briefly, she became eerily still. "It was different from the other times," remembers O'Brien, who had acted as bodily restraint in at least six previous sessions and was planning to try the therapy himself that afternoon. "She just stopped responding. Something was wrong." Grove never regained consciousness. After being in a coma for three weeks, she died.

Eleven months later, O'Brien inhabits a nightmare world of his own. He is convinced James Watt is responsible for the death of the woman he loved. He feels Watt, a medical professional, should have known that too much of either carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide could suffocate Grove. O'Brien saw it happen. He felt Leah Grove lose the force of life while he held her in his arms. And he is convinced Watt committed a crime. But he has yet to bring the doctor to justice.

O'Brien has had a hard time just getting anyone to listen to his story. While Grove was still in a coma, he quit his public relations job to devote himself full-time to his obsession with holding Watt accountable. He's been interviewed by the Manhattan district attorney's office twice and has badgered the prosecutors so often they no longer return his calls. (The D.A.'s office says it has been responsive.) In the desperate hope that it would force the D.A. to take action, O'Brien set up a Web site detailing the circumstances of Grove's death and began bombarding local newsrooms with his press releases.

Meanwhile, Watt, who was already semi-retired before the incident and has since moved to Texas, seems likely to remain free. In recent weeks, O'Brien has been waiting with bated breath for final word from the D.A. According to a recent report in the New York Post, the doctor is poised to strike a bargain with the prosecutor's office that would allow him to serve no jail time for Grove's death in exchange for pleading guilty to a charge of criminally negligent homicide. Sherry Hunter, a spokesperson for the Manhattan D.A., confirmed that the office was investigating Watt, but wouldn't comment further on the case.

"He's going to walk!" says an outraged O'Brien. "How can they let him walk?"

Similar questions plague countless other survivors. Though only the most scandalous cases hit the papers, advocates say many more egregious medical acts go unrecognized—and unpunished. "What we see is just the tip of the iceberg," says Ralph Speken, a physician who was unable to convince the authorities to pursue a criminal case after his 23-year-old son, Seth, died while being restrained in a New York City hospital in 1993. The doctor has since devoted himself to getting the criminal justice system more involved in medical misconduct.

No one knows for sure how many deaths and injuries are the fault of bad doctors. According to a 1999 report issued by the Institute of Medicine, a Washington-based organization that provides information on health and science policy to the government, between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in the United States every year as a result of medical errors. Studies of physician disability are one gauge of how many doctors should be disciplined for their behavior. According to the Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, some 5 to 10 percent of physicians are disabled by either drug or alcohol use, mental health problems, or physical illness to the point where their work is impaired. Since New York State has 57,000 practicing physicians, that means that up to 5700 doctors in New York may be affected.

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