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Haggard Says Heart Didn't Need Fixin'

November 06, 2002|Rick Wartzman | Times Staff Writer

Country music legend Merle Haggard knows a thing or two about cheatin' hearts. Cheating on heart surgeries, however, is a whole different matter.

The 65-year-old recording artist, who is currently on tour, came home to Redding the other day to find the town in an uproar over allegations that a couple of doctors at the local medical center may have been pushing patients to undergo heart surgeries they haven't really needed. Haggard, it turns out, had a pair of heart stents put in by one of the doctors, Chae Moon, about five years ago.

Now, Haggard said, he's convinced that the fear he has long harbored in the back of his mind is completely warranted. "I suspected when it was done to me that I didn't need" an operation, he said. "There's a very good chance I may be a prime example of what Dr. Moon did. The whole thing has made me mad. I'm just waiting here for the FBI to contact me."

The FBI raided Redding Medical Center, which is owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp., last week. Agents also searched Moon's offices, as well as those of his colleague, Dr. Fidel Realyvasquez. No one has been charged.

Moon didn't return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment. Neither did his lawyer. A Tenet spokesman said that whether Haggard's surgery was proper is "a question for Dr. Moon to answer.... We have limited ability to judge medical necessity. That's not a question for us."

Haggard -- whose hits include "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" -- said that in 1995, he had an angioplasty procedure performed in Nashville to help pry open his clogged arteries. Afterward, he felt terrific and was given a clean bill of health. "They told me everything looked good," Haggard recalled.

So it was surprising, he said, when he went to Redding Medical Center in the summer of 1997 for a checkup and was told by Moon that his heart was failing. Moon recommended that he immediately operate on Haggard to put in stents, small tubes that are inserted in heart valves or arteries to keep them from collapsing. Haggard said he had emergency surgery that same day -- but always had doubts about whether the operation was truly necessary.

"It just didn't hit me right," said Haggard, who moved to a ranch just outside Redding from his native Bakersfield in the late 1970s.

He said his misgivings were heightened when the drummer in his band, the Strangers, also checked into Redding Medical Center about three years ago. Biff Adam was back from the road, feeling a little weak and complaining of some chest pain, when he went to see Moon.

After some tests, Adam remembered in an interview Monday, the doctor delivered the bad news: The left muscle in his heart was badly damaged. Moon "went up to my wife and said, 'Your husband needs a heart transplant,' " Adam recounted. "She almost passed out."

Adam said his family doctor in Redding, Morris Ballard, suggested that he get a second opinion. He did, from Dr. Robert Pick, who wound up treating Adam not with surgery but with a drug called Coreg, which lowers blood pressure. "That straightened me out," Adam said. "I didn't need a heart transplant -- that's for damn sure."

Both Pick and Ballard were traveling Tuesday and couldn't be reached.

Haggard's '97 surgery wasn't his only experience with Moon. On another occasion, he said, he took a treadmill test at Redding Medical Center, after which Moon informed him that he needed to be put on a blood-thinning medication. Haggard said Moon also made clear that "I'd be a candidate for open-heart surgery in five years."

That time, Haggard said he ignored Moon's advice, declining to take the medication. He doesn't figure he'll be going in for any more heart surgery, either -- at least not with Moon.

"You have to wonder," said Haggard, "did he tell me the truth at any time?"

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