In February 2006, Shana Reese was a bubbly cheerleader who loved shopping, going to movies and roller-skating with friends. The only wrinkle in her otherwise carefree life was the headaches that had plagued her for nearly a year. So her physician referred her to Dr. Yasser Awaad, a pediatric neurologist in Detroit. After two EEGs, she says, he diagnosed her with epilepsy and told her she couldn't drive, shouldn't go outside and had to quit cheerleading. Worst of all, the anti-seizure medicines he prescribed made her so tired that she became a virtual hermit, shuttered in her bedroom, sleeping away her high school years. "I was on the honor roll," says Shana, now 19, of Taylor, Mich. "But after I started these medications, I was barely passing."
Then came the real shock-after nearly a year of debilitating side effects from the medications, Shana went to other doctors (Awaad closed down his operation in 2007), and one of them explained that her headaches were caused by allergies, not epilepsy. Now she believes Awaad's diagnosis and treatment were all a sham. And she's not alone. She and 254 other former patients have sued Awaad for allegedly misdiagnosing them with epilepsy in order to reap huge insurance payouts for himself and Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center in Dearborne, Mich. (The hospital is also named in the lawsuit.) "A lot of these kids were put in special ed," says Brian Benner, the plaintiffs' attorney, who is seeking damages for emotional and physical distress as well as reimbursement for his clients' medical bills.
Last year, after an investigation by the Michigan attorney general's office, the hospital reimbursed the state $309,140 in Medicaid fraud-all of it Awaad's billings. While the state found no grounds to charge Awaad criminally, it is investigating whether the doctor should keep his medical license. Awaad, 55, is now practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. Seth Lloyd, general counsel for Oakwood Healthcare, says the doctor properly treated all his patients. Says Lloyd: "I just want to be clear how upset we are about this whole situation."
Try telling that to the Harris and Lucas families. According to the lawsuit, Dion and Laurie Harris took their daughter Brittany to see Awaad because she was hallucinating and falling a lot. He told them their daughter, just 5 when she saw him in 2001, had epilepsy and needed surgery to implant a device that would control her seizures. "The very first visit, even before he did an EEG, he said he knew what she had," says Laurie, 39, of Riverview, Mich. Over the next two years, Brittany's life was a steady stream of surgeries (four in all) and medications. After Brittany got an infection from one of the surgeries, the Harrises took her to see a pediatric neurologist who said their daughter never had epilepsy. She is autistic. While she is now getting help at a special school, the side effects of the meds and the surgeries set Brittany, now 14, back years, says Laurie. "She still has memory problems," she says. Amber and John Lucas say they are still reeling after Dr. Awaad misdiagnosed five of their six children with epilepsy. "We lived a nightmare," says Amber, 39, of Dearborne.
Meanwhile, Shana has slowly recovered from all the medications she took. She graduated from high school in June and starts at a local community college in January. Still, she has this message for anyone seeking medical treatment: "Get a second opinion from another doctor. Don't just believe what the doctor says is true."