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Fake Doctors : A Deadly Charade in Medicine

December 26, 1986|MARCIDA DODSON | Times Staff Writer

When Joseph Branda underwent surgery three years ago to have a fingernail-sized tumor removed from his bladder, he and his wife, Loretta, knew there were risks associated with such major surgery. But they never thought that one of them would turn out to be an anesthesiologist who was an impostor.

During the operation at Walson Army Hospital in Ft. Dix., N.J., Branda stopped breathing. That went undetected for three minutes because Abraham Asante, the man hired by the hospital as its sole anesthesiologist, had not hooked Branda to a heart monitor.

By the time Branda's condition was noticed, he had gone into cardiac arrest and had turned blue from head to chest. Branda, then 46, was revived, but his brain had been robbed of oxygen for too long. He emerged from the operating room in an irreversible coma.

Falsification Discovered

It was only then that the Army discovered that Asante was no doctor.

Asante was tried, convicted and sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

"You hear stories (of cases like this) but you don't think twice about them. And then it happens to you," Loretta Branda said in a telephone interview from her Medford, N.J. home. "How could the Army do such a thing? How could they allow that to happen?"

Medicine has a long history of bogus doctors, crafty impostors who don white coats and win the trust of patients and physicians alike, deploying a polished bedside manner that often masks their limited expertise.

Some have done quite well at it. In Orange County, a high school dropout treated patients for 18 months in an urgent-care center, pulling in an annual salary of $98,000 until he was caught earlier this year.

Patients Can Check

In many cases, impostors--former medical corpsmen, failed medical students or simply very polished con men--take on the identity of living or deceased physicians and stay on the move, keeping one step ahead of suspicion. In other cases, they use their own names and fraudulent documents.

Authorities say detecting impostors is fairly simple. They recommend that patients check a physician's credentials with medical associations and licensing agencies. A newly enacted federal law, aimed at policing incompetent doctors as well as impostors, mandates the creation of a clearinghouse, which should make that task easier.

"But no system can guarantee there won't be impostors out there," said Dr. James S. Todd, senior deputy executive vice president of the American Medical Assn.

"No matter what you do, there are always going to be impostors," he said. "You'd be surprised how many times we get inquiries about a certain doctor and, when we look him up, our files say he has been dead for X number of months or years."

Estimates of the number of impostors are hard to come by. "Nobody knows," said Ken Wagstaff, executive director of California's Board of Medical Quality Assurance, which oversees the licensing of the state's 65,000 doctors.

Only a handful a year get caught; yet even one impostor has the potential of causing harm to many people. "It certainly is a significant problem," Todd added.

Deadly Error

Typically, impostors are caught only after they have made some grave, possibly deadly, error. One of those is Gerald Barnes.

Barnes moved to California in the mid-1970s, about the same time he lost his Illinois pharmacist license after working at several Chicago-area drug stores. In California, he began impersonating a Stockton surgeon with the same name.

A one-time amateur actor in Illinois, Barnes carried on the impersonation for 3 1/2 years in Southern California, until he made a fatal error while working at an industrial medical office in Irvine in December, 1979.

A 29-year-old man had come to him, complaining of dry mouth and lips, sudden weight loss, dizziness and insatiable thirst--classic symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes. Barnes ordered blood and urine tests but sent the patient home with a prescription for the dizziness.

Two days later, the patient, John McKenzie, was found dead in his Anaheim apartment.

Cynthia Mitthauer, 32, was luckier. Seven years ago, struggling to support herself and a small son after a divorce, Mitthauer decided to bypass her well-established--and costly--specialist when her troublesome right ear developed another problem.

Instead she went to an Irvine industrial medical clinic with which her employer had a low-cost insurance plan. She was seen by Barnes, for only $4.

Cyst Behind Ear

He diagnosed an ear infection and prescribed medicine. But the ear did not heal and, despite repeated visits, Barnes would not refer her to a specialist who would have been covered under her insurance.

Six months later, still in pain and suffering from a hearing loss, Mitthauer went to her specialist. He found a cyst growing on the bone behind her ear.

If it had gone unchecked, "it could have grown into the brain," she said. Mitthauer underwent two surgeries, paid for by Medi-Cal.

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