March 31st, 2008
04:41 PM ET

Patients say their surgeon "butchered" them

360 tonight

Becky Anderson says she had no idea that the doctor treating her was being treated for alcoholism. Watch full report tonight on 360° 10p ET. WATCH A PREVIEW

There we were, gathered in a hotel room with about seven or eight patients who say they were “butchered” by their doctor. As they prepared to show us proof, I told myself I was ready. I had seen some of the pictures online and in some of the emails these people had sent us. But I was wrong. (Read the full story)

Nothing could have prepared me for what they revealed.

Most of these women were cut all the way around, from their back to their belly button. Their upper belly hung awkwardly over their lower belly, as if you put a belt around their midsection and tightened it as much as you could. On all of them, a deep black scar circled the abdominal area.

One woman showed me her incisions – still open and bleeding slightly, years after her surgery. That same woman no longer has a belly button.

She said she was told she would heal better from the “inside out,” so he took a scapula and cut her back open after she had complications with incisions.

Another woman showed me her lopsided breasts. One much larger than the other. One woman who couldn’t be there because she’s too sick emailed us a picture of her with a volley-ball sized ‘pouch” attached to her abdomen. She told us it holds her intestines.

As my producer, Catherine Mitchell, worked with the photographer to capture the images, I found myself having to turn away. In part, out of shock, and also out of sadness for how disfigured these people now look. They went in for plastic surgery, in most cases for breast reconstruction following a cancer and a mastectomy, and came out like this. I felt sick. I wanted to cry. They did cry...

Why, you might be wondering, did we gather these people in a Sacramento hotel room to take their pictures? Well, we also interviewed them for a story airing tonight on Anderson Cooper 360. The story is about a special program called a “Physician Diversion Program,” which allows doctors to secretly get treatment for addiction while continuing to operate on patients.

Would you know if your doctor was addicted to drugs? Would you know if he was getting treated for that addiction? Chances are you would not.

There are dozens of these programs around the country and they are completely confidential.

The patients we met say they are disfigured because of the California Diversion Program and Dr. Brian West, who treated them. Dr. West refused to be interviewed for our story, but I can tell you he is a board certified plastic surgeon in California who graduated from Stanford. His patients had no idea he was an alcoholic when he treated them.

The woman I mentioned earlier, Becky Anderson, had to forego cancer treatment while battling complications from surgery with Dr. West and now she is dying of cancer. She had no idea when she let Dr. West treat her that he had two convictions for driving under the influence, including one of them on the way to the hospital to treat her! He lied about the DUI, blaming the missed appointment with Becky on a car accident. She sued Dr. West. He never admitted any fault, but settled with her for $250,000.

In California, the State Medical Association says there are between 200 and 400 doctors in this Diversion Program on any given day. A nationwide study found about 1 percent of all physicians practicing in the United States are in confidential treatment. That’s about 8,000 doctors!... 8,000 doctors whose patients have no idea they are addicts.

Wouldn’t you want to know?

In California, the state Medical Board is planning to shut down the program as of July because it’s decided it “failed” to protect patients. Five audits of the program since 1982 found all kinds of failures. Even the drug testing of doctors wasn’t random. One auditor told me the doctors could anticipate on which days they’d be drug tested.

Still, even after all the patients who say they were disfigured as a result of this program, one powerful state agency, the California Medical Association, is fighting to keep the program running, and keep the names of doctors enrolled confidential. The association’s President, Joe Dunn, told me, “we believe very strongly this is the absolute best way to insure patient safety. We need to get physicians out of the shadows.”

Dunn believes if the program is shut down in July, doctors will still continue to feed their addiction “privately” and not get help. He argues, “Without a diversion program, no one knows. Patients don't know. Health professionals who could help don't know.”

Ken Mikulecky wants to see the California program shut down. His wife, Sharon Mikulecky, had a mastectomy after learning she had breast cancer. Ken Mikulecky says Dr. West performed breast reconstruction on his wife by using stomach muscle to rebuild her breast. He says her incision became infected and left a gaping hole in her abdomen. Just like Becky Anderson, Sharon Mikulecky had to put off cancer treatment for about a year. In 2003, cancer killed her.

The Mikulecky’s were not aware of Dr. West’s DUI convictions or that he was enrolled in the state’s rehabilitation program. When I visited with him at the house he used to share with his wife, Ken Mikulecky told me, “When that person's right to privacy hurts other people, harms other people, that should not be allowed to happen... She told me several times that she could smell alcohol on his breath… 'til the day I die I gotta live with that, and that hurts pretty good because I didn't believe my wife.”

Ken Mikulecky is convinced his wife would have had a better chance of surviving had her doctor not been an addict. Still, he says, he’s forgiven Dr. West. “That's between him and God. I got my own soul to look after. I just want him to stop,” he told me.

Mr. Mikulecky and some of Dr. West’s former patients are petitioning to have Dr. West’s license revoked.

Why is he still practicing? California’s Medical Board says Dr. West flunked out of the “diversion” program and was placed on probation. He was not allowed to practice medicine for one year but that time has come and gone. Today, his lawyer tells us, Dr. West is back in the program and has been “in recovery for years.” We confirmed he is back in business, operating on patients in Beverly Hills.

Ken Mikulecky finds that disturbing. He told me, “I don’t want to see anymore people get hurt, anymore innocent people go under the knife because people are hiding other people's addictions. I want to see that stop.”

– Randi Kaye, 360° Correspondent

Program Note: Watch Randi Kaye's full report tonight on 360° 10p ET.

Filed under: Randi Kaye
soundoff (211 Responses)
  1. Inky

    Medical Boards across the nation are co-conspirators to cover up the danger that a significant percentage of docs pose to their unwitting patients. I review medical records and do quality control and have to confront docs all the time. The Medical Boards and in many cases the state legislatures write the statutes to make it unnecessary for the Boards to report criminal wrongdoing to law enforcement agencies. Some docs, like the rest of the general public ,have serious and persistent mental illness which when combined with substance abuse makes them weapons of mass destruction. Patients think that there are controls in place to prevent this but there are precious few. BUYER BEWARE.

    April 2, 2008 at 8:13 pm |
  2. EJ - Ohio

    Perhaps AC360 should do a follow up where they show physicians that have successfully recovered w/the help of these programs and a few others in the medical field (RN's, hospital administrators, surgery board employees, etc) who may have different perspectives (or at least have different or additional information)

    April 2, 2008 at 4:49 pm |
  3. Marty

    Mr Cooper...I am a practicing physician "in recovery" which is a huge distinction from "in treatment"...I and many others like me are in recovery for years, practicing a very high level of medicine very safely. I now work with my state program to educate medical students and residents and to increase awareness of the disease of substance abuse, which includes eating disorders, gambling, etc.

    10-12% of all folks in this country have or will develop a dependency on something or another in their lifetime, doctores included. What should scare the heck out of people is not the 1% of doctors that are actually getting the help that they need that you spoke about in this piece but the other 9% that are still out there, hiding and scared to get help. I would be more than happy to speak with you anytime about how the system really works with successes far outstripping the failures. If these physician (attorney, nurse, etc) assistance programs are disbanded, there will be a much worse and more dangerous situation than currently exists.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:14 am |
  4. Gabe Vargas

    Being a Professional does not end with the education. Due to the fact that peoples lives are in their hands, they are socially obligated to behave as a professional. If not, they are more than qualified for a lesser position as a nurse or a position with less responsibility.

    April 2, 2008 at 3:18 am |
  5. Janet

    A few years back my doctors were found liable for medical fraud and concealment. AB2571 was then signed into law born out of my medical nightmare. My story came out this year in my book titled, Taking a Stand.
    Just as my doctor’s committed fraud and concealment–I feel that the Medical Board of California has taken part in concealing a condition that could compromise health care through their Diversion program. I was lied to, so has each patient who goes into surgery believing that their doctor is at his best, not using or intoxicated–trusting that the Medical Board who is charged to protect them–was doing so. My medical records were altered, a year removed. Not until my doctor confessed his mistakes 10 surgeries and 15 years after the fact did I know there was a problem. Yet the California Medical Board has known all along of the failures in operating their own Diversion program. It was not until the patients seen tonight went to speak at a Ca Medical Board meeting and the media got wind did this board vote to end this nightmare.
    Now we must look forward in how to both protect patients and provide a situation for doctor’s to get the help that they need. Any ideas?

    April 2, 2008 at 12:40 am |
  6. Mary Ann Costamagna

    May I suggest that you fact check your reference to the "California Medical Association" as a "state agency." It's my understanding the California Medical Association is a statewide trade association for the medical profession, much like the American Medical Association is at the national level.
    Hope this is helpful. Thank you for an excellent story.
    Mary Ann

    April 1, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  7. Regina

    Biased sensationalism! Having a substance disorder is not the same as being incompetent!!!! Every profession has marginally qualified practitioners, but the assumption that a physician is “impaired” because s/he has a substance disorder is misleading/ignorant.

    The story misrepresented what good physician diversion programs do. They do not protect impaired physicians. They keep physicians with substance disorders accountable. The California program was poorly managed. In diversion programs nationwide, if a physician is using alcohol or drugs, they are sent to treatment and NOT PACTICING. Once they have completed treatment and demonstrated the ability to maintain sobriety, they are allowed to return to work. Even then, they are required to attend some type of outpatient treatment, provide random drug screens, attend groups, have additional supervision and more. The success rate for physicians in diversion programs is much higher than the national average.

    Would you rather have doctors hide their substance disorders? Don’t you realize this would likely increase the likelihood of patient injury? Wouldn’t you rather encourage physicians to seek treatment, get sober and return to work a better physician? The idea of not letting a physician in recovery return to practice shows how little is understood about addiction. Come on America, get educated. Learn the full truth before jumping to conclusions.

    April 1, 2008 at 9:55 pm |
  8. izzymommy1

    To Karen (the last respondent):

    I am almost hesitant to write this as I feel it wll not make any difference...but when you state things like "doctors get away with murder" it is extremely discouraging to the great doctors out there. Medical cases are complicated, sometimes having the choice of a bad outcome vs a worse outcome. And usually it never even comes to this. These doctors devote their life to medicine, and 99% of the ones I have met are not only incredible physicians, but also incredible people. When you make your allegations of "murder", it is sensationalist and reminds me once again that every case needs to be evaluated on an indiviudual basis. The science/circumstances around each case is so specific (did I mention that a non-peer jury usually finds in favor of the docotr???) But it saddens me when anyeone makes these outrageous generalizations. Good luck with your rehab. Was it a doctor that turned you in?

    April 1, 2008 at 7:46 pm |
  9. Peggy

    Another one sided story.

    April 1, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  10. Kathy, Andover

    @ one point, I thought I heard Randi say they couldn't prove this so-called surgeon was "under the influence" while operating. What in the hell difference does that make??? What I mean is, if he was sober and did that to someone it would be malpractice. No matter what the reason was, that guy should not be allowed to operate period. And it's pretty disgusting (to say the least) that noone around him had anything to say about this. Colleagues, nurses, etc?!

    I remember an anesthesia resident that had a drug problem. I felt sorry for him. But guess what . . . he could not practice anesthesiology UNTIL he had COMPLETED his drug rehab and was READY to practice anesthesiology. You said this wasn't just in California, but surely there are differences in how drug problems are handled across the country. The example I gave is drastically different - maybe residents are treated differently, when it comes to this? I tell you one thing, when I saw that smug fill-in-the-blank on the TV screen, I wanted to reach in and hit him (hit him hard, to say the least) I caN'T believe this jerk is getting away with this!!!!! Kathy RN

    April 1, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  11. Sherry Statman

    As an attorney who has both prosecuted physicians for a state medical board and defended health professionals in front of their licensing boards, I have seen both sides of this issue. The rationale for allowing physicians to participate in "confidential" rehabilitation programs is to encourage them to get the help they need.

    However, in this instance, the State of California bears the burden of properly monitoring their physicians. In Texas, the Medical Board has rigorous requirements for a physician to be eligible to participate in a confidential rehabilitation program. Many do not qualify and are allowed to continue practice only under public orders. Random testing and other monitoring requirements are strictly enforced and the Board will temporarily suspend the license of a physician who is shown to be a continuing threat to the public.

    April 1, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
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