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Teen Tells of Disabilities After Dental Treatment

Testimony: Defendant's former patient says she cannot write or shower on her own. Prosecutors blame dentist's overuse of an oral sedative.

January 29, 2002|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Slurring her words and moving with difficulty, a young woman told jurors Monday that brain damage she suffered after a visit to a Pasadena dentist left her unable to write, tie her shoes or shower on her own.

Melissa "Missy" McGrath's injuries, prosecutors allege, are the result of pediatric dentist Drueciel Ford's overuse of an oral sedative, chloral hydrate. McGrath, 18, who uses a walker, suffered a heart attack on March 15, 1999, at Ford's office shortly after taking the sedative.

Prosecutors allege that Ford's practice resembled a production line, where over-sedated children were "stacked up like cardboard," amounting to child endangerment.

McGrath told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury she cannot recall the visit to Ford's office. Prosecutors allege that she was clinically dead for 28 minutes before paramedics resuscitated her.

McGrath, who needs daily therapy, said she can read but cannot write. Walking and talking "is a lot harder for me now," she said.

McGrath already was seated when jurors entered the room, but moments earlier in the hall she had struggled past them with her walker.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Albert MacKenzie said Ford, 50, gave McGrath six times the maximum dose of chloral hydrate. Ford faces more than five dozen charges, including numerous counts of felony child endangerment and one count of conspiracy. She could face more than 30 years in prison if convicted.

Her attorneys said she gave an acceptable dosage of chloral hydrate.

"Clearly, what happened here is a medical misadventure," attorney Edi M.O. Faal said after McGrath's testimony. "There was a patient who suffered an adverse reaction while receiving dental treatment. The issue is: Did Dr. Ford do anything which caused that adverse medical situation? The answer is no."

Defense attorneys outside court said there is no scientific evidence to connect the sedative and the heart attack, and that it is a matter for civil not criminal court.

Under cross-examination by Ford's attorneys, Mike Guerrero, a dental board investigator, testified that neither he nor Pasadena police had obtained samples of McGrath's blood taken at the hospital and never sought a test for levels of chloral hydrate.

Since the trial began in November, prosecutors have called several of Ford's staffers and patients' parents to the witness stand to show that children often were over-sedated and released in a rag-doll state, and that dental assistants did work such as fillings and crowns illegally. Pasadena Police Officer Jennifer Howlett testified Monday that she saw two unconscious children in Ford's office moments after McGrath was taken to the hospital.

Defense attorneys say Pasadena police and dental investigators persuaded witnesses to give statements favorable to the prosecution.

Guerrero on Monday testified that initially Dana Harmon, a Ford assistant, told him she gave McGrath a few teaspoons of chloral hydrate, within the allowable dosage of 2,000 milligrams. Based on that statement and other evidence, a prosecutor who headed the Los Angeles County district attorney's medical case unit in October 1999 rejected the case.

But Guerrero testified that in December 1999, Harmon told him she lied and it was actually a cup of the sedative. Prosecutors say that is six times the recommended maximum.

Defense attorneys noted that Harmon by that time had filed a workers' compensation claim against Ford's practice for job stress, and the allegation aided her case.

However, Guerrero testified that McGrath's mother, Jan McGrath, had also told investigators her daughter was given two half-cup doses.

Jan McGrath was due to testify Monday. But Judge Lance Ito postponed her appearance because he believed she needed her own lawyer present. In a separate case, the district attorney's office has charged her with perjury related to statements she made to receive welfare benefits. Ford's lawyers said they wished to question her about her truthfulness.

Ito said her attorney could advise her on whether to testify or at least whether to answer certain questions using the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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