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.