IN MARCH 1981, ROBERTA WARD, A 34-year-old Tustin, Calif., mother of two, underwent a hysterectomy performed by Dr. Ivan Namihas, a gynecologist her family doctor had recommended highly. The operation went well, but a few days later the patient's sutures tore open. Dr. Namihas put her under anesthesia and sewed her up. A few days later, the stitches tore again. This time Dr. Namihas, seemingly agitated, redid the stitches—but omitted the anesthetic. "It was excruciatingly painful, but he finished so quickly I didn't have time to do anything," she says.

When Ward went in for a final checkup, she suddenly realized the examination was anything but routine. She says that when she was alone with Dr. Namihas, her feel in the metal stirrups, Namihas commented that Ward's husband would "appreciate" his handiwork because he had "sewed me up tighter." Then the doctor began to fondle her, Ward says. "I thought, 'Do I yell? Do I kick? My feet are up in these things.' So I laid there like a corpse, thinking, 'It's going to be over.' It seemed like an eternity." After Namihas left the room, Ward rushed home, mortified, and never saw him again.

A year later Ward found the courage to tell the doctor who had originally recommended Namihas of her experience and at his urging reported Namihas to the state medical board. A week later Kathleen Schmidt, only six months on the job as the first female investigator in the board's Orange County office, overheard two men in her office discussing the alleged case of sexual abuse as if "it was a big joke to them." Angrily, Schmidt got permission from her supervisor to take over the case. "I wanted it to be taken seriously," she says. After interviewing Roberta Ward in 1981, Schmidt had no doubt that Ward had told the truth and called Namihas in for questioning. "He told me he was helping women with their sexual-dysfunction problems," she recalls. "I didn't believe him." However, under the state medical board's disciplinary regulations, Schmidt could take no action on the original complaint without additional witnesses to Namihas's alleged misbehavior.

Now, after 11 years, during which she was quietly and patiently "obsessed" with the Namihas case while wailing for such witnesses to come forward, Schmidt's commitment to the case has paid off. In a court hearing that was scheduled to begin May 18, more than 70 witnesses, including Roberta Ward, stood ready to testify against the doctor. They never got their chance because Namihas offered to surrender his medical license rather than be confronted by his accusers. The Attorney General's office refused the offer in order to keep the accusations a matter of public record. It is expected that the court will recommend that Namihas's license be revoked, though the statute of limitations will not allow the state to press criminal charges against him.

Officials of the California Attorney General's office have described Namihas as "a predator in a white coat" and called his alleged transgressions "the worst case of sexual abuse by a physician in California history." Schmidt, 44, is delighted that the doctor's misconduct has been made; public and that his many victims have at last found the strength to fight back. "It never occurred to them that there were others [who were abused]," she says. Schmidt suspected all along that Ward was not alone. Though unable to take action on the first complaint, she remained grimly confident that other allegations against Namihas would surface. "I knew that if he had done this once, he had done it more than once," she says. "I knew I would hear his name again."

It took Schmidt years to assemble her case, in part because Namihas, now 59, was so highly respected in the medical community. Born in Manaus, Brazil, and graduated in 1960 from the College of Medical Evangelists (now called Loma Linda University School of Medicine) in Riverside, Calif., he served on the staff of three Orange County hospitals. (Ironically he was a member of the credentials committee of the Orange County Medical Association and was in a position to judge misconduct charge's against his peers.) Active in medical missionary work in Mexico and Puerto Rico and the father of three sons (by the first of two failed marriages), two of whom are doctors, Namihas seemed unassailable to his frightened victims. Says Schmidt: "Most assumed they wouldn't be believed, especially against this powerful doctor."

In fact, she adds, he had been guilty of sexual and medical misconduct dating back to 1962, when he fondled a patient, Lois V., during an examination. In 1989 he told another patient, Emily E., 21, that she had genital warts, performed painful laser surgery on her, said she could never have children, then told her she had cervical cancer. The doctor she went to for a second opinion told her there was nothing wrong with her. Another woman, Kerry F., says that when she was seven months pregnant, Namihas told her she was in labor in order to get her to the hospital; when she arrived, she says, he induced labor so that he could be free to leave on a skiing trip.

Schmidt brought a special sensitivity to the case. During her investigation she and her husband (also in law enforcement) were having difficulty conceiving a child, and Schmidt says she realized "just how vulnerable a woman is with her gynecologist." (The couple adopted a baby girl, Marisa, 10 years ago.) Though at any given time Schmidt may be assigned as many as 75 different cases, the Namihas investigation took hold of her time and her home life in a way that few others had. "There's a constant pull between trying to be a wonderful mother and the loyalty toward the job," she says, "but the Namihas victims were counting on me too."

The first break in the case came in 1987, six years after Roberta Ward's original complaint, when Schmidt overheard another investigator discussing a sexual misconduct case; the name Namihas jumped out at her. The patient, April S., claimed to the investigator that during a pelvic exam, Namihas had fondled her sexually. Again, the complaint went no further; Namihas managed to convince two investigators that April S. had misunderstood a common medical procedure. Since medical disciplinary files are routinely destroyed after five years, Ward's complaint was no longer on the books, and once again it was a case of one woman's word against that of her doctor. Then in 1990 a former girlfriend of Namihas's, Jeanette J., complained to the medical board that Namihas had gotten her pregnant, then performed an after-hours abortion on her without adequate equipment. Soon after, two other complaints came in, and Schmidt—at last—had a case.

In December 1991, armed with these allegations, the medical board filed charges of gross negligence, incompetence and sexual abuse and misconduct against Namihas. And then the case took a twist that stunned even the most experienced investigators. After news of the accusation was published in Orange County papers, more than 160 women, including Namihas's half sister, Yomi Perry, 40, who says he raped and molested her repeatedly from earliest childhood, came forward with their own allegations against Namihas. Says Schmidt: "I don't think this was about sex. It was about the humiliation of women." There are now several civil suits pending against Namihas, including one filed by Perry, but, says Schmidt, "It's hard to come up with an appropriate penalty for this man—except to leave him alone in a locked room with all these women."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
DORIS BACON in Orange County

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  • Doris Bacon.