By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Laura Contreras, a 24-year-old mom in Los Angeles, says she wanted a tummy tuck to get rid of some of the extra skin around her belly following her weight loss after the birth of her second child. So in early 2007, she and her sister, who was also shopping around for the same surgery, scoured the Medical Board of California's website and visited with different doctors. They narrowed their choices down to two surgeons.
At the time, Contreras had no idea that one of those surgeons, Dr. Brian West, who was working in Long Beach, was the same surgeon who is now the subject of a Medical Board of California investigation, involving allegations made by former patients in Northern California who had their surgeries during the time West was battling a drinking problem in Sacramento (see "Under Wraps," Jan. 11).
The now-47-year-old West was pleasant and reassuring, Contreras says. And his rates were slightly less expensive than others, so she chose him.
It's a choice she has come to regret. Last week, Contreras filed a personal-injury lawsuit against West, hoping to recover the money she claims she has spent trying to get West and other doctors to fix what went wrong with the original surgery.
Contreras had seen on the state medical board's website that West had a previous DUI conviction and was enrolled in a diversion program that allows doctors with substance-abuse problems to continue practicing if they agree to be monitored by the program while they seek rehabilitation. Information about their participation while in the program is kept from patients except on rare occasions in which doctors are mandated to join the program by the board. Because several audits have found the program has failed to protect the public, it is due to be abolished this fall.
Although West was found by the board in 2005 to have violated the program's rules for falsifying AA meeting records and relapsing, he was put on probation and has since met all the conditions of the program, according to Dominique Pollara, West's lawyer. Pollara did not respond to several calls seeking comment on Contreras' case.
When Contreras asked West about his participation in the program, he explained to her that he had been young when the DUI happened and that he had to do diversion because of it, she says. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. "I felt like I could trust him; he reassured me."
West performed the surgery a year ago this January. "Two days after my surgery, my tummy tuck ruptured," she says. For five months, Contreras asserts, she had an open wound on her abdomen that eventually grew to 7 inches wide and 1.5 centimeters deep.
Once her wound had ruptured and become infected, Contreras was told by another patient about a website created by one of West's former patients, an unflattering ode to the doctor and the harm patients who post there claim he's caused them. The site stands in stark contrast to the glowing remarks left by former patients on his own website.
"When I called his office and spoke to his assistant," Contreras says, "I said, 'Hey, why wasn't I told about this? The same thing that happened to me happened to another woman.'"
West called her back immediately, Contreras recalls. "He said, 'This has been haunting me for a couple of years; I was young,' about his DUI. He never said that any of his DUIs had anything to do with his practice."
Contreras learned more when she read the formal complaint filed on Feb. 26, 2007, against West by the attorney general's office on behalf of the medical board, she says. Although the claims by West's former patients had been filed with the board in 2005 and 2006, they were not available to the public until they became a formal accusation. In addition to alleging gross negligence by West, the accusation charges him with dishonesty for claiming to a CHP officer after his DUI arrest and car accident that he was on his way to his office. West later wrote, in a letter to another doctor obtained by the Weekly, that the reason he had missed his rounds at the hospital on the day of his DUI arrest was because he had been involved in a car accident.
"I would have never gone to him if I knew that DUI affected anything in his practice," Contreras says.
West told her that the information she had found on the website run by former patient Tina Minasian was wrong, she says, and only gave one side of the story. "I didn't believe him because I had asked him about it before," Contreras says. "Then I saw the website, and I thought, 'How can so many patients be lying about the same thing?'"
Contreras told West she wanted to see a wound specialist; he told her that was fine, she says. Contreras says she saw West for the last time on March 5, 2007. She saw a wound specialist later that same day, and, she says, she has not heard from West since.
Contreras says she did not want to file a lawsuit and asked West, through her lawyer, to cover her bills for the additional treatment she had to seek to close the wound. Her petitions were rejected by West's insurance, she says, and that she has no choice but to try to recover the nearly $50,000 she has accrued in debt from the $15,000 surgery.
Contreras filed her lawsuit on Jan. 7, and she is also filing a complaint with the medical board, she says. Medical-board complaints are the only type of action that can seek revocation of a doctor's license. "I think there's a relationship between past mistakes and me," she says.