When Medicine is Murder

The Struggle to Bring Bad Doctors to Justice

Many insist that this assumption keeps prosecutors away from most medical cases in the first place. "The D.A. has a bias that all medical issues should just be handled medically," says Speken, the physician and patients' advocate. "It's been a very, very serious error in judgment."

Even "Dr. Zorro," a/k/a Allan Zarkin, the Manhattan obstetrician who carved his initials into his patient's belly, didn't end up serving time. (He pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and was sentenced to probation and had his license revoked.) And though the Manhattan D.A. began an investigation in the case of Lisa Smart, who died when her body was pumped full of fluid during a surgical procedure in which a medical-equipment salesman participated, the office never pursued a criminal case.

The rare exceptions to that rule are often abortion doctors, who are subject to unusually strict oversight due to the pressure from the right-to-life movement. In New York City, both of the most recent convictions of doctors were supported by a well-organized legal effort to criminally prosecute abortion doctors. David Benjamin, the Queens physician, was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in 1995 for allowing his patient to die after he tore her uterus during a botched abortion. A witness testified that he left her unattended for hours while she bled to death. Just two years before that, Abu Hayat, an East Village physician, was convicted of severing the arm of a fetus while performing an illegal abortion on a woman who was seven and a half months pregnant.

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

Many more doctors ought to be prosecuted, according to lawyers familiar with the medical terrain. "We see an awful lot of terrible medical things happening," says Robert Conason, an attorney who handles malpractice cases and is currently representing Amadou Diallo's mother in a civil suit against the city for police brutality. "Some definitely transcend negligence." Conason suggests that the Department of Health pick out extreme cases and refer them for criminal review, a method that is used in several other countries. The change, he says, would not only afford personal vindication, but also prevent future incidents: "These cases of gross misconduct will happen again if you don't [criminally prosecute] them."

And the horror stories may signal that less dramatic injustices are rampant. "These kinds of examples reveal how dysfunctional our system is," says the Center for Medical Consumers' Levin. "If we can't keep track of these extreme cases, how can we expect it to cope with the everyday smaller complaints?"

One way, newly available this year, is the health department's Web site (www.nydoctorprofile.com), which allows New Yorkers to look up legal actions taken against the state's doctors. But even that likely wouldn't have helped Grove, who never found out that the mild-mannered Watt had once been arrested for having mescaline and LSD on his yacht and that he had had his medical license revoked in California in 1972. The records detailing the reasons for the California Medical Board's action have since been destroyed. But Watt had been involved in LSD experimentation in California, claiming it induced memories in his patients.

Perhaps that information would have convinced Grove not to submit to the dangerous procedure. Perhaps not. She already had plenty of reason to question Watt, whose equipment was obviously aging and whose business card advertised several techniques on the unproven edge of medicine, including "anti-aging therapy," "environmental detoxification," "IV nutrient infusions," and "chelation therapy."

Since it was tried experimentally in the 1940s, inhalation therapy has been widely discredited and, besides Watt, may have had no current proponents. The most recent literature Watt could offer Grove was a 1950 medical text, Carbon Dioxide Therapy, and even the author of that book acknowledged his treatment might never make it into the medical mainstream.

The long-out-of-print book, which Grove had ordered online and borrowed from Watt, details a psychiatrist's experiments with having patients inhale the gas. Several, like Grove, reported seeing geometric patterns. Some said the gas-induced dream state brought them vivid recollections of past events; one seemed to be reliving attempted rapes when she went under. The book, which arrived at Grove's apartment after the fatal treatment, also mentions patients' violent reactions to carbon dioxide, including seizures, screaming, and fighting "with tooth and nail."

Such resistance, not unlike Grove's, is also uncannily similar to the life-and-death struggle of a patient of another unorthodox treatment. Candace Newmaker, a 10-year-old, died in Colorado two years ago while she was undergoing "rebirthing therapy," which was supposed to cure her emotional problems by bringing her back to the very beginning of childhood. Two professionals held Newmaker down while she screamed, gasped, and, ultimately, suffocated. Both are now serving 16-year sentences for reckless child abuse resulting in death. Neither was a doctor.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would submit to such an ordeal. O'Brien says Leah Grove's decision to get "inhalation therapy" from James Watt boiled down to a simple desire to feel better—and perhaps a bit of unfortunate naïveté. "Watt was her doctor," says O'Brien. "She trusted him."

Research assistance: Jennifer Snow

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