Under Wraps

Many of Dr. Brian West's patients didn't know he was in the state medical board's substance-abuse-diversion program. At least six of them claim they're paying the price

The accident happened not long after Brian West left the parking lot of Beverages and More. He missed his exit, and his car hit another on Interstate 80, just north of Sacramento. It was July 30, 2000, a warm Saturday. A CHP officer took notes. Blood was drawn; West's blood-alcohol level registered at 0.19 percent, more than double the legal limit. He told the CHP officer he was on his way to his office. It was later discovered that West, a charming, Stanford- and UC Irvine-educated plastic surgeon, had also planned to do his rounds at a nearby hospital that day. He was due to see Becky Anderson, a patient of his who was suffering from an abdominal infection. This was West's second DUI arrest.

If things had gone according to the standards set by the Medical Board of California, Dr. West's fingerprints would have made it to the board's enforcement department soon after his arrest. Because this was his second DUI, the board would have launched an investigation to assess whether or not his behavior was a threat to his patients or to the public and whether it was cause for discipline. The investigation would have landed on the desk of the state attorney general, who represents the board, and the decision would have been made whether to file a formal accusation against West.

Last year, the board filed just such an accusation against Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Jan Adams, who operated on hip-hop superstar Kanye West's mother the day before her death, following an investigation into his second DUI arrest in 2006. The accusation was listed under Adams' physician profile on the board's website.

Dr. West performed Tina Minasian's surgery while he was enrolled in the state medical board's secretive program  for doctors with substance-abuse problems.
Jeremy Sykes
Dr. West performed Tina Minasian's surgery while he was enrolled in the state medical board's secretive program for doctors with substance-abuse problems.

According to the board, West's fingerprints never showed up, and they're not sure why. They did not become aware of the DUI arrest until a full year later, when West was convicted.

For the next few years after that incident, both West's drinking and his plastic-surgery practice continued. Former patients say that during this time, they were injured at the hands of a doctor they had no idea was battling an addiction. The surgeon shut down his practice, filed for bankruptcy, joined the U.S. Air Force for a few years and disappeared from Sacramento.

The Medical Board of California allowed him to evade disciplinary action through his enrollment in the board's secretive and problematic substance-abuse-diversion program. West was later found by the board to have falsified records and lied about his stated sobriety during his time in the program-while he was still seeing patients. He was put on probation, but the board never revoked his license.

Last year, West began practicing in Southern California, first at the Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Institute, with offices in Beverly Hills and Long Beach, and now at the Plastic Surgery Institute of Beverly Hills in Huntington Beach and in LA. Early last year, the medical board complaints filed by five of his former patients were taken up by the attorney general's office and are now part of one formal accusation filed last February by the Medical Board of California, alleging multiple acts of gross negligence by West. These former patients (and one ex-patient's husband) allege that West left a disturbing trail of deformed and injured patients behind him in Sacramento, and they do not believe he should still be practicing medicine. At issue is the state medical board's handling of doctors like West, who, these former patients say, should not be practicing while battling their addictions. These ex-patients say they won't rest until the board revokes his license.

West could not be reached for comment for this story. His attorney, Dominique Pollara, emphasizes alcohol has not been a patient-care issue for West and cited an appellate court and medical-board decision where this was determined. "There has been absolutely no evidence where I've represented Dr. West where he has treated patients under the influence," she says. "Does that mean he doesn't have a drinking problem? No. But it means there was no alcohol involved during patient care."

*   *   *

The day of West's DUI accident in 2000, Becky Anderson, a feisty grandmother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, was in the emergency room at Mercy San Juan Hospital near Sacramento. She had gone in with a severe infection in her abdomen and later wrote in a statement that she had repeatedly tried to reach West that day, but couldn't.

Anderson had already been through two surgeries with West. In 1999, she met with him to talk about a breast reconstruction after her mastectomy. Anderson wasn't shy about disclosing her medical and drug history, says her sister Sherry Bural, who accompanied Anderson on the visit. (Anderson is currently in hospice care and could not be interviewed for this story.) She told West that she was a heavy smoker and that she had Hepatitis C, Bural claims. The surgery West urged for Anderson, known as a Tram Flap, was contraindicated for smokers.

"I was furious after that meeting," Bural says. "I felt that was the surgery he wanted to do, the harder one."

The procedure involves cutting out the skin, muscle and fat from the area below the belly button and using it to "rebuild" a breast. It is one option for post-mastectomy cancer patients who would like to reconstruct one or both breasts. Studies have found that current or former smokers have a much higher risk of complications with this particular surgery because of the loss of stomach muscle. The draw for some patients is that the breast is made from real tissue—and the removal of the tissue from the abdomen becomes the added bonus of a "tummy tuck."

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