Doctor in Lisa McPherson case suspended

David I. Minkoff loses his license for one year for improperly prescribing drugs for the Scientologist.

St. Petersburg Times/August 4, 2001
By Thomas C. Tobin and Alisa Ulferts

Tallahassee -- Florida's Board of Medicine has sternly sanctioned Clearwater physician David I. Minkoff, finding he improperly prescribed medicine for a patient he had never seen -- Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

Minkoff, also a Scientologist, prescribed Valium and the muscle relaxant chloral hydrate at the behest of unlicensed Church of Scientology staffers who were trying to nurse McPherson, 36, through a severe mental breakdown. When they failed after 17 days of isolating her, Minkoff was recruited again. This time, he pronounced McPherson dead.

For his role in the 1995 episode that Minkoff himself calls a "fiasco," the 53-year-old doctor will lose his medical license for one year and then be made to practice under probation for two more years -- unless he appeals and wins a reversal. He also was fined $10,000.

The board's action Friday is the first official consequence for anyone connected with McPherson's death, which resulted in a two-year criminal investigation, made headlines around the world, claimed the career of the local medical examiner and plunged the church into a tumultuous period that sapped its resources and hurt membership.

The investigation brought two unprecedented felony charges, not against individuals but against a corporation: Scientology's main entity in Clearwater. One of them, the charge of practicing medicine without a license, was related to Minkoff's actions. The other was neglect of a disabled adult.

Both were dropped last year after Pinellas prosecutors reluctantly concluded their case had been wrecked by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood, who changed her conclusions about the cause of McPherson's death and later retired under pressure.

Meanwhile, a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 1997 by McPherson's family moves slowly through the Pinellas court system.

On Friday, Minkoff appeared before the board to answer charges that he prescribed medication for McPherson over the phone without examining her and that he relied on the church's non-licensed medical officers in treating McPherson.

However, he said nothing during the hearing and declined to speak to the St. Petersburg Times afterward. Board members agreed to stay Minkoff's suspension pending his appeal, but added a few words to their punishment. "This is a healthy, 36-year-old female who died for no reason I can tell," said Rafael Miguel, one of two board members who wanted to revoke Minkoff's license. In the last fiscal year, only 8 percent of doctors disciplined by the Board of Medicine were suspended.

Ken Dandar, the Tampa lawyer who represents McPherson's family, called the sanctions too lenient. Dandar set off the inquiry that led to Friday's action, complaining about Minkoff to state health officials in 1997.

He nevertheless credited Minkoff on Friday for the candid accounts he has given in sworn statements. It was Minkoff, a Scientologist for 20 years, who told prosecutors in 1998 that McPherson's care at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater was seriously flawed.

McPherson's troubles surfaced Nov. 18, 1995, when she disrobed in the street after a minor auto accident. Paramedics took her to Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, but several Scientologists showed up to object, citing the church's hard stance against psychiatry.

When they took McPherson to the Fort Harrison Hotel, a Scientology retreat, she became psychotic. Two days later, church staffers called Minkoff, saying they needed something to help McPherson sleep.

The doctor is a "public" Scientologist, not one of the uniformed members who staff the church. Though Minkoff had never seen McPherson and didn't know her medical history, he prescribed liquid Valium. He also wrote the prescription in the name of the Scientology staffer who was sent to pick it up -- not the actions of a "reasonably prudent physician," according to a stinging document written earlier this year by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration.

Nine days later, the church staffers called again. This time, Minkoff prescribed chloral hydrate, a prescription sedative, again without examining McPherson or gleaning information about her medical situation. On Dec. 5, 1995, when Scientology staffers realized McPherson was physically ill, they again called Minkoff, who says he told them to take her to the nearest hospital. But the staffers persisted, saying they feared doctors at Morton Plant Hospital, two minutes away, would put her in the psychiatric ward.

Minkoff, who worked in the emergency room at a New Port Richey hospital 45 minutes away, finally agreed to see McPherson. He was "shocked out of my wits" when she arrived.

After pronouncing McPherson dead, Minkoff told prosecutors he screamed at church staffer Janis Johnson for bringing him someone in such "horrific" shape. Johnson was an unlicensed physician.

An autopsy found McPherson died of a blood clot in her left lung. Minkoff, who also works at a Clearwater clinic, was contrite with prosecutors about his role, saying, "It was foolish to do what I did."

Because of statements like that, Minkoff has come to be one of the better witnesses against his own church as McPherson's relatives press their lawsuit. Once a defendant in that lawsuit, he has settled with McPherson's family. Minkoff has said Johnson never revealed the severity of McPherson's psychosis. Had he known more, he would have acted differently, he told prosecutors.

The church had no response Friday.

Minkoff's attorney, Bruce Lamb, reminded medical board members Friday that Minkoff has practiced medicine since 1995 without incident. Suspending him immediately could put other patients in jeopardy, he said. "There was no intent or bad act committed by Dr. Minkoff."

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