Scientology case takes its toll

Dr. Joan Wood gives up her medical license after a report strongly criticizes her handling of a disputed 1995 death.

St. Peterburg Times/July 9, 2005
By Susan Taylor Martin

Former Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has relinquished her Florida medical license in the wake of a state health department claim that she "became an advocate for the Church of Scientology" in a bitter dispute over the 1995 death of Scientology member Lisa McPherson.

Wood changed the probable cause of death from "severe dehydration" to "accident" based on "factors other than objective anatomic findings," according to an administrative complaint. She also let "personal bias or prejudice" affect her decision to amend the original ruling.

In her handling of the McPherson case, the department's complaint said, Wood "failed to practice medicine with that level of care, skill and treatment which is recognized . . . as being acceptable under similar conditions and circumstances."

Wood, 60, termed the state's claims "baloney."

"I have never been nor will ever be an advocate for the Church of Scientology," she said in an interview Friday. "I am very proud of my 25-year record, and I've been ethical and moral and honest in all of my dealings. I resent any implication to the opposite."

In voluntarily surrendering her license, Wood agreed to never again practice medicine in Florida. The move also forestalled further state administrative action.

Wood, who retired under fire in 2000, said she has been unable to practice since then because of medical problems. She decided to relinquish her license, she said, instead of paying the "very expensive" costs of keeping it active, such as attending conferences and continuing education courses.

Ben Shaw, a Church of Scientology spokesman, said he found it "unbelievable" that the health department considered Wood an advocate for the church in the McPherson controversy.

"Anybody who knows anything about the facts of that case knows that would be ridiculous," he said. "If you look at some of the e-mails she wrote prior to changing the death certificate, it was clear that was the last thing she wanted to do. . . . She was desperate, she was trying to find any way she could to support her original position when there was not any scientific basis for it."

The case, which spawned criminal charges and a wrongful death suit, stems from a minor traffic accident McPherson had in 1995 near the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. The 36-year-old McPherson got out of her vehicle, took off her clothes, and told a paramedic, "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

Paramedics took her to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, but McPherson signed out against a doctor's advice when church members showed up and said they would care for her. Scientologists oppose psychiatric treatment.

Daily reports by low-level Scientologists, obtained in subsequent court proceedings, said McPherson fought with her caregivers and refused to eat. She eventually grew too weak to stand.

By Dec. 5, 1995, McPherson's weight had dropped dramatically and, one staffer wrote, she "looked very sick and was breathing heavily." They drove her 45 minutes to a hospital in the next county so she could be seen by a doctor who is a Scientologist. He pronounced her dead at the hospital.

Wood originally listed the cause of death as "bed rest and severe dehydration." Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged the church with two felonies: practicing medicine without a license, and abuse of an adult.

In 2000, four years after McPherson died, Wood amended the death certificate to show the probable manner of death was an accident, based on a "review of all case materials and consultation with other experts." McCabe's office dropped the criminal charges against the church, blaming Wood for scuttling its case.

In 2003, an investigator for the Florida Department of Health interviewed Wood, who said "it served no purpose to charge the Church of Scientology."

The interview is summarized in the department's administrative complaint against Wood, dated last September. It became public when the state Board of Medicine, which regulates physicians, recently issued its final order accepting Wood's surrender of her license.

According to the complaint, Wood "stated that the members of the Church of Scientology were untrained and there was no intent to cause the death of Patient L.M.," referring to McPherson. "Therefore, (Wood) said she changed the manner of death to "accident.' "

Wood said Friday she didn't have all the facts when she made the original ruling on McPherson's death.

"The first information (the church) gave us regarding her bore no resemblance to what we knew, based on physical findings, that must have occurred. They made this sound like an overnight illness. We knew that wasn't true, but it was a long, long time before we got all the facts together."

The church countered that Wood's office had botched the autopsy, ignoring evidence McPherson was not dehydrated or unusually thin when she died.

Wood and Shaw, the church spokesman, both denied Friday that the church pressured Wood to change her original ruling. However, Wood acknowledged she felt under stress throughout the years of controversy over the McPherson case.

"I think in their own way the church has a long history of attempting to pressure individuals, and they can leave you at your wit's end in terms of providing them mounds and mounds of paperwork," Wood said. "But no, no, no - the bottom line is that I made my decision based on all the facts I had available to me, not just the anatomic findings."

One of the lawyers who represented McPherson's estate in the wrongful death suit against the church said Wood was under "a great deal of pressure" over the case.

"I think a number of people were both surprised and shocked when she did change her initial finding," attorney Luke Lirot said Friday. "There was a significant amount of agreement that her original determination was accurate, and I think that original determination reflected adversely on the Church of Scientology. I think they brought a significant amount of pressure to bear on her, and I don't think anybody can conclude that didn't have some impact on the modification of the report."

The wrongful death suit was settled last year; the terms were kept confidential.

McCabe, the state attorney, said Friday he thinks Wood reversed herself on McPherson's death because the church "kept flooding her with information that raised questions in her own mind." However, he said, he never considered Wood an advocate for Scientology.

"She could certainly be strong-willed and advocate her position strongly but I never felt there was any improper bias or prejudice. We certainly had disagreements over time but I never had any questions about her competence."

Toward the end of her tenure as medical examiner, Wood also came under fire for a case in which her office said a 7-month-old girl had died because of a violent shaking. The father was charged with first-degree murder, but the charge was dropped when a new medical examiner ruled the baby's death was an accident.

Since retiring, Wood has been living off Social Security and private disability insurance, she said. She doesn't miss the practice of medicine.

"The stress after 25 years of working in that office was something I did not care to deal with any more. And when my physician was telling me I could never practice again, why would I pay out that kind of money (for a license)? It's not like I'm living in the lap of luxury."

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