The Cult of Lauersen
Prolonged jury deliberations are not unlike childbirth. There are the false alarms, the times when the end seems near only to disappear for another interminable stretch. The moments when the various players have important tasks to doclarifying evidence for the jury, say, or retrieving a desired washcloth for the mother-to-be. And theres the rest of the time, when those exasperated players sit around and eat too much candy.
Of course, seven daysthe time a jury spent considering physician Niels Lauersen's case before it was officially declared a mistrial on Mondayis longer than even the most reluctant infant takes to come out of the womb. There are other differences, too. "With a delivery, you know the outcome is most likely positive," says Lauersen, who may face a retrial this spring on charges that he fudged the billing of infertility treatments not covered by insurance to help his patients get reimbursed. If convicted, he could face considerable jail time.
But if Lauersen's worries are not over, the ob-gyn can take comfort from the coterie of women who surrounded him throughout the anxious moments of his trialand who have made his practice legendary for both its size and their fealty.
A bearlike man with a heavy Danish accent, Lauersen inspires a devotion from his female patients that borders on the absurd. "I cannot conceive of seeing another doctor," says Abbe Aronson, a 32-year-old party planner from Soho who has been a Lauersen patient for almost 10 years. "I would only have another child with Dr. Lauersen. I couldn't get through another pregnancy without him to take care of me."
Sheri Zarkower, a part-time malpractice lawyer who commuted an hour and a half each way from Scarsdale to attend the trial, is similarly fervent about the doctor. "I don't think I'd embark on [pregnancy] again if he wouldn't be there," says Zarkower, whose second child is due in July.
Zarkower says that Lauersen has steered her masterfully through difficult moments in both pregnancies. But his doctoring skillsattested to by dozens of female supporters at the courthouseonly go so far in explaining why mothers trotted their little ones down to Centre Street to follow each minor legal turn in a six-week trial. Or why a staggering 14,000 women have visited Lauersen's East Side office over the past 18 years. Or, for that matter, why a good number of these women arrive at appointments with the doctor's favorite chocolates (Godiva) or his favorite ice cream (Häagen-Dazs Rum Raisin).
While he may be the medical genius that some patients insist he is, the cult of Lauersen seems more directly a result of two other factors: the creeping dehumanization of medicine and, within that context, the charismatic draw of a man who loves female attention. As for the first, these days, it's not uncommon for a doctor to grope for a woman's name and her cervix at the same time. In today's impersonal medical offices, it's easy to feel reduced to a mass of symptoms or, worse yet, a source of paperwork.
The lack of personal connection is that much more stinging in the land of sexually transmitted infections, baby-making, and stirrups. In this context, Lauersen's intense, moony stares may actually come to some as a reliefand his memory for the names of patients' husbands and kids becomes superhuman.
"You're a whole person, not just a vagina," says Stefanie Soichet, who attributes the doctor's attentiveness to the fact that he's single. (Long divorced, Lauersen is childless and seems to have split last year from his socialite girlfriend Denise Rich.) "[Patients] are getting something they don't get elsewhere, even in their marriages," hazards Soichet.
Lauersen has another, not necessarily contradictory explanation, of his allure. "I love delivering babies," he said the other day, leaning one arm on a stroller parked in the courthouse and staring fixedly into a reporter's eyes. "Having a baby is so wonderful," he says, adding inexplicably, "You can hear the heartbeat, you know."
It's the sort of childlike and child-oriented pronouncement that keeps the faithful by his side, as they were after court one day last week. While three patients surrounded him to offer support, Lauersen lovingly placed little pieces of a cookies and cream bar on each of their outstretched tongues.
Depending on the viewer, such a gesturewhich, like much of Lauersen's practice style, goes way beyond usual doctor-patient relationsmight seem either disturbingly intimate or endearing. His billing practices seem to have been similarly divisive, with the seven-woman, six-man jury irrevocably split on whether they were in fact criminal.
But ultimately, the question of whether he was truly guilty of ripping off the big guys (Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Travelers, GHI, and Oxford were a few of the companies involved) to help out women seems irrelevant to his most devoted followers.
"I don't think any verdict could change how I feel about him," says Zarkower.
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