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- May 06, 2002
- Vol. 57
- No. 17
Spurred by Angry Former Patients, Authorities Close in on Vicki Hufnagel, a Defrocked Doc Who Insists She's a Medical Marvel
When she emerged from the clinic two weeks later, Myles was in a wheelchair and gravely ill. Fluid leaking from infected incisions drenched her seat on the long flight back to New Jersey. Doctors at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick struggled for three weeks to combat her infection before removing Myles's uterus—the very procedure she had tried so desperately to avoid. Dr. Richard Mellon, who oversaw Myles's care, calls her illness "a life-threatening circumstance." Myles, 49, who has one grown son, Reginal, 33, and lives in Avenel, N.J., has recovered from her medical nightmare and is back at work. Rut some scars have yet to heal. Vicki Hufnagel took advantage of me when I was desperate," says Myles. "She should be locked up."
Myles isn't the only woman to be dazzled and then disillusioned by the controversial Hufnagel. A once-prominent Beverly Hills gynecologist and author with a strong feminist perspective about women's health issues, she won fame by condemning the high incidence of hysterectomy—what she calls "female vivisection." But behind that message is a woman who, authorities and some former patients suggest, was not only in over her head as a physician but now may be breaking the law by practicing medicine without a license.
Seven women told PEOPLE that they traveled to Mexico, where Hufnagel operated on them. For four of them, the decision was a terrible mistake: Hufnagel, they charge, failed to heal them and left them medically stranded with serious postoperative complications. "I feel utterly betrayed," says Tana Cutcliff, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., homemaker who claims Hufnagel "deformed" her during two operations in Mexico three years ago and has avoided helping her ever since. "The minute anything goes wrong, it's the patient's fault," says Cutcliff. Says Dr. Bruce Bekkar, a San Diego gynecologist who has known of Hufnagel for years: "What she does is dangerous."
The California Medical Board and the L.A. district attorney's office may reach the same conclusion. Investigators raided Hufnagel's home last November and say they have gathered other evidence that could lead to criminal charges against her. "We have taken from the house names of patients, dates of surgeries and payment information," says Marc Gonzalez, a supervising investigator for the board. "We believe it's damning."
In two interviews with PEOPLE, Hufnagel, 53, insisted she has done nothing illegal. Since losing her license, she contends, she has been active as a paid promoter of women's health but not as a doctor. "I don't diagnose, treat or prescribe," says Hufnagel. And despite the statements of eyewitnesses, she also says she does not actually perform surgery in Mexico, although she regularly travels there to assist surgeons who do. "I work with physicians. I advise," she says, dismissing contrary accounts as part of a witch-hunt launched by those in the medical mainstream who don't like her. "It's because I tell the truth," she says. "Every time they slap me down, I figure out another way of talking. They want to shut me up."
Born in Southern California and raised there and in Florida by jockey George Hufnagel and homemaker wife Juanita (both now dead), Hufnagel says she was inspired to become a doctor after watching a TV documentary on missionary physician Albert Schweitzer. "He rolled up his sleeves, and he was getting all dirty taking care of people," she says. "I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' " Hufnagel never earned a college degree but amassed enough credits to get into the University of California-Davis School of Medicine before transferring to University of California-San Francisco Medical School, from which she graduated in 1976. "They let me do stuff in cardiac surgery that residents were doing," she says. "As a resident, I was doing things that attending surgeons were doing. I'm, like, a prodigy."
Perhaps, but certainly a discipline problem. Records show that in 1984 Hufnagel was suspended from the residency program of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. "She was essentially abandoning her patients," says Dr. Hal Danzer, her supervisor. "The nurses were saying, 'We've got a problem. We need an order and she's nowhere to be found.' " Hufnagel sued to keep her job and lost. Since then she says she has been sued for malpractice at least 10 times, winning one case at trial and settling the rest.
Those setbacks didn't tarnish Hufnagel's reputation outside the profession, thanks to her 1988 book No More Hysterectomies, a passionate manifesto on the surgical removal of women's reproductive organs. In it she blasted doctors for forcing female patients to undergo the procedure without offering less drastic options. "Some male doctors need to control women and feel power over their organs," wrote Hufnagel, who claimed that some 90 percent of all female surgical sterilizations were unnecessary. During a 1994 appearance on Oprah, she went further: "There really is a gender bias in all medical care.... Generally women get second-class [treatment]."
Hufnagel's alternative was an array of procedures—she calls it Female Reconstructive Surgery, or FRS—to correct problems including fibroids, cysts, endometriosis and other noncancerous gynecological problems. "She was my god," says Philadelphia actress Can-dace Gross, 47, on whom Hufnagel performed three such procedures between 1988 and 1995. During the pre-op consultation, "she examined me, leaned over her desk and said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do here,' " recalls Gross. "She was challenged and interested and wanted to help."
But other doctors have dismissed her FRS technique as a hodgepodge of existing procedures used to avoid hysterectomies—even when the surgery is necessary. " 'No more hysterectomies' was a catchphrase at the time, and it was trendy," says Dr. Stuart Fishbein, a Los Angeles gynecologist who has treated a dozen or so former Hufnagel patients. In fact, he says, "there are plenty of reasons why women should have hysterectomies"—including pain and heavy bleeding caused by tumors.
Even as new patients flooded Hufnagel's offices in Beverly Hills, complaints from former patients began accumulating. By the mid-'80s, 13 filed complaints with the California Medical Board, alleging that Hufnagel had botched surgical procedures and billed for services she never performed. One patient, L.A. radio host Rama Fox, now 61, says Hufnagel removed her fibroid tumors in January 1985 but failed to treat adequately the bleeding, anemia and pain that followed. "Her postoperative care was horrendous," says Fox, who had a hysterectomy seven months later.
By 1989 the California Medical Board, after 27 days of hearings, decided it had had enough of Hufnagel and pulled her license. Referring to Fox's treatment, the board said Hufnagel's conduct "constituted gross negligence in ... refusing to perform a hysterectomy, refusing and failing to even give the patient a clear option as to treatment choice, refusing to disclose the need for further surgery and ignoring the condition of the patient."
Hufnagel—currently embroiled in a divorce battle with businessman Robert Schuster, her third husband and the father of her two daughters, Demitra, 10, and Tara, 16—fought the California decision through the courts
for seven years and has sought reinstatement since. "I need my life back!" she told the board's licensing review committee on Feb. 1. "No one can ever give me enough money for the treatment I have had to endure over years for simply saying, 'Too many hysterectomies are done.' "
For a long time Tana Cutcliff believed Hufnagel was right. Cutcliff, 56, turned to Hufnagel in 1998, she says, after several doctors recommended she have a hysterectomy to solve a case of incontinence so severe she had to give up her career as a professional musician. Cutcliff first found Hufnagel's candor and passion inspiring but changed her mind after undergoing two operations at Villa Floresta in the spring of 1999. "She made a mess of me," says Cutcliff, who figures she paid a total of $27,000 for telephone consultations and surgery. Cutcliff says her incontinence is worse today and has filed a complaint against Hufnagel with the California officials. "It all started adding up," says Cutcliff. "I couldn't get a proper postoperative report from her. I couldn't get a receipt for the checks I wrote. I really couldn't get any answers, and I thought, 'Okay, I got duped.' "
Sharon Mayo, 49, a divorced Albuquerque homemaker, feels no less aggrieved. In the spring of 2001 Mayo says that three doctors told her to have a hysterectomy because of a prolapsed uterus. Convinced that the procedure could lead to further medical problems, Mayo and her then-boyfriend, retired aerospace engineer Terry Holt, 58, went to Villa Floresta. According to Holt, who wore surgical scrubs and watched the operation from 10 feet away, Hufnagel cut out the fibroid tumors and cysts with a laser and resuspended Mayo's uterus with strips of Gore-Tex fabric, a procedure Hufnagel says she uses to "reconstruct" the organs. "She liked having an audience," Holt recalls. "She said things like, 'They said this couldn't be done.' "
Eight weeks into her recovery, Mayo felt a popping sensation in her pelvis and realized her prolapse had returned. Hufnagel, she says, has been reluctant to provide follow-up care and refuses to provide a detailed postoperative report. "Once she took my money and did the surgery, she never returned my phone calls," says Mayo.
Hufnagel denies the charges. She calls Mayo "wacky" and says she failed to follow postoperative instructions. Furthermore, while maintaining that she doesn't operate, she says many women have successfully undergone FRS in Mexico. One such patient, registered nurse Tammy Harris, agrees. "She's good, way above average," says Harris, 42. "Hufnagel fixed everything." But like others, Harris and. her husband, Robert, insist Hufnagel performed surgery. Tammy says she watched Hufnagel remove fibroids from another woman's uterus the afternoon before her own surgery. Robert says Hufnagel, working in tandem with a Mexican surgeon, Dr. Raul Garza, did most of the cutting using an argon laser. "It was almost like four hands working and one brain." (Garza declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Hufnagel says her patients' memories are flawed. "It's in their minds," she says. "They get so excited that they don't know what they are really seeing." She is even more dismissive of women who developed problems after visiting Villa Floresta. Tana Cut-cliff "didn't follow postoperative instructions," says Hufnagel. (Cutcliff insists she did.) When asked about Deloris Myles's life-threatening pelvic abscess, Hufnagel refuses to acknowledge it. "There was no bacteria," says Hufnagel. "She was a very fat woman. She had draining fat."
Back in 1989 the California Medical Board found that Hufnagel's "overblown view of her own knowledge and skill caused her to act incompetently." Myles believes that little has changed since then. "She portrays herself as being this miracle worker, someone who says, 'I can do all these things,' " says Myles. "I came to realize afterwards that most of what Hufnagel says she can do, she can't do at all."
John Hannah, Ron Arias and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles and Michael Haederle in Albuquerque
- John Hannah,
- Ron Arias,
- Maureen Harrington,
- Michael Haederle.
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