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Doctor Loses License After Implanting Wrong Embryos

The Bay Area physician tried to cover up error for 18 months, the state Medical Board rules.

April 25, 2005|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — A fertility doctor who implanted the wrong embryos in a woman and allegedly engaged in an 18-month cover-up has lost his medical license and must shut down his practice by Wednesday.

The Medical Board of California decided last month that Dr. Steven Katz would no longer be allowed to practice medicine because he failed to tell the truth to the two women involved in the mix-up.

Katz, who has offices in Greenbrae in Marin County and in San Francisco, asked the board to reconsider its decision, but the board declined to do so April 20.

"This case involves some of the most serious physician misconduct imaginable, and nothing short of revocation will restore to the public confidence that this type of behavior will not be tolerated by the medical profession," wrote Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Lew.

His recommendation, contained in a 23-page proposed decision to rescind the doctor's license, was approved March 28 by the medical board.

The mix-up occurred in June 2000, when Katz implanted three embryos meant for another woman into Susan Buchweitz of Campbell. The embryos were created by in vitro fertilization using the sperm of the other woman's husband and donor eggs.

Katz, who runs Fertility Associates of the Bay Area, realized the mistake within 10 minutes of the procedure after his embryologist, Imam El-Danasouri, said he had given the doctor the wrong embryos, according to the decision.

"Respondent was shocked. He notes that his reaction was such that he almost fainted," the decision said.

Katz declined to respond, but his attorney, Robert Sullivan of Sacramento, said, "The penalty is excessive, and it's purely punitive."

Sullivan said Katz plans to appeal the board's decision in Sacramento Superior Court.

"It happened years ago. It was an extraordinary set of facts. Yes, the doctor made a mistake," Sullivan said, but he added that Katz had learned from the experience and improved his procedures.

Sullivan also said the purpose of taking away a doctor's license is to protect the public and rehabilitate the physician, not to restore public confidence, as asserted in the decision.

Sullivan contends that one of the medical board's expert witnesses, Dr. Eldon Schriock, operates a fertility clinic in San Francisco and is a competitor of Katz.

Jane Zack Simon, a deputy attorney general representing the medical board, denied there was a conflict of interest, saying that argument was raised at a hearing and "Judge Lew didn't find that persuasive at all."

In describing the incident, the board's decision said that, instead of telling Buchweitz about the mix-up, Katz allegedly gave her birth control pills to abort any pregnancy that might result.

During the hearing, Katz denied giving the woman any medication but said that if he had, it would have been to improve her chances of becoming pregnant.

Lew didn't believe that claim, noting that a nurse reported seeing the doctor give Buchweitz birth control pills and finding an empty package for them in the trash at the clinic.

A transcript of the hearing has not yet been prepared, but Sullivan said the patient testified during the hearing that Katz did not give her drugs.

Simon disagreed, saying Buchweitz testified that she could not remember if the doctor had given her pills. Ultimately, Buchweitz became pregnant and delivered a son. The other woman, who has not been publicly identified, had a daughter.

Neither woman knew of the foul-up until their babies were 10 months old and Katz visited them after learning that the medical board was investigating the incident, the decision said.

Larry Mercer, another deputy attorney general representing the medical board, said Katz had many opportunities to tell the women about the mistake and their options, including terminating the pregnancy or joint parenting.

Katz, who has specialized in reproductive endocrinology and fertility for 12 years, argued that he encountered "a novel, rare and complex" problem and that there were no guidelines to tell him what to do, the decision said.

Katz also said he had "a genuine desire to act in the best interests of the patients," according to the decision.

But Lew faulted Katz for failing to document the mistake in his medical records.

"The evidence strongly points to an elaborate cover-up of wrongdoing and a physician acting to protect his own interests above those of his patients," he wrote in the decision.

El-Danasouri, who shared offices with Katz and prepared the embryos for implantation, did not have the required tissue bank license, according to the decision.

When the mix-up was discovered, El-Danasouri, who had run other in vitro fertilization labs, urged Katz to embark on the deception, the decision said. El-Danasouri has moved to Germany and is not facing action by the medical board because he is not a medical professional, Mercer said, adding that he was trained as a veterinarian.

The medical board revoked the licenses of 37 physicians and 65 others surrendered their licenses in 2003-04, said Candis Cohen, spokeswoman for the medical board. A total of 91,000 doctors are licensed to practice in the state.

The mistake has triggered a legal battle between Buchweitz and the other woman and her husband, who consider the boy their son, according to the decision. The husband has gained visitation rights with the boy.

Buchweitz and the couple were not named in the decision, but Buchweitz has been identified in the past. She could not be reached for comment.

The couple have since moved to the Bay Area from Del Norte County so their daughter can be closer to her brother, the decision said.

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