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Affirmative Action in Action: Doctor No By: Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 01, 1997


Heterodoxy | September, 1997

"AMERICA IS NEVER GOING TO BE AMERICA as long as we have discrimination in any shape or form," proclaimed Sen. Edward Kennedy in his distinctive accent. "We are not going to see an issue which has historically been used by the darker forces in our society to divide us to be played out again."

It was April 30, 1996, and out in California the salvos were flying over Proposition 209, a proposal to eliminate race and gender preferences. And the Senator from Massachusetts wasn’t going to let the affirmative action battle pass without getting in his shots.

"Affirmative action is not about promoting or hiring unqualified women and minorities, admitting unqualified students, or awarding contracts to unqualified businesses," he said. "Affirmative action has paid enormous dividends," said Kennedy, and he had a "perfect example," in mind: Dr. Patrick Chavis whom he mistakenly called "Bernard Chavis."

"He is the supposedly less qualified African-American student who allegedly ‘displaced’ Bakke at the University of California-Davis in the landmark case. Today Dr. Chavis is a successful ob-gyn in central Los Angeles, serving a disadvantaged community and making a difference in the lives of scores of poor families." In June 1995, Chavis made the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and keystoned a feature by Nicholas Lemann, a national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, which showed the him heroically posed under the surgical lamps holding a newly delivered child. Prior to that the Los Angeles Times had billed him as a star who had overcome prejudice, and before that he landed a spot in the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize. Chavis himself often championed affirmative action on PBS’s Los Angeles affiliate and was the subject of a Prime Time Live segment during the Prop 209 debate.

That was part of the picture, a rosy picture, of affirmative action in action. The other, far less appealing part of the picture could be seen on June 22, 1996, when, not long after Kennedy’s encomium about him, Patrick Chavis performed liposuction on Tammaria Cotton, a 43-year-old court clerk and grandmother. Several hours after surgery, Mrs. Cotton was dead. While she was recovering from the procedure, Chavis left to attend another liposuction patient at his house, who had also experienced complications, and whom he had left in the care of his niece, an 18-year-old with no medical training. Mr. Chavis’s promoters in high places showed no interest in this story, which was effectively broken more than a year later not by the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times but a fashion magazine, Allure, in an article on the dangers of liposuction, and by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. Chavis was on the hotseat, put there by those who wanted to use him as an example. As chairman of the 209 campaign Ward Connerly commented, "Now that they have pointed to him [Chavis] as a role model, we are duty bound to carefully examine the circumstances."

In 1969 the University of California at Davis instituted a race-based program of admissions called "The Task Force." The first year, Davis reserved eight slots for minority students and when the class size doubled the following year doubled the number of slots reserved for minorities to 16 while setting up other separate-but-unequal conditions. For example, the applications of the non-minorities were considered by regular admissions committee while a special admissions committee attended those of minorities. It was under this plan and these conditions that Patrick Chavis, a biology graduate of Albion College in Michigan, gained admission in 1973.

UC Davis officials have not returned phone calls, but Dr. Chavis will speak to anyone willing to listen. In the course of an interview lasting several hours, he told me that his grades were "3.2 or something like that, 3.3." But he admits that without the special program he would not have gotten in to Davis. As Nicholas Lemann put it, Chavis and four other blacks admitted to UC Davis under the Task Force "got in because they were black, and therefore took the place of five white applicants with better grades and test scores." But "better" doesn’t quite capture it.

The GPA of those admitted in 1973 under regular standards was 3.49, while that of the special admits was 2.88. The regulars scored an average science GPA of 3.51 while the special admits turned in 2.62. On the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), the regulars scored an average of 81 and the specials 46. On the quantitative section the regulars scored 76, the special admits 24. In science the regulars logged 83 and the specials 35. And in the category of general information the regulars scored 69 to the specials’ 33.

Allan Bakke, a 32-year-old engineer who decided he would rather be a doctor, held a GPA of 3.51, with a 3.45 in science. On the quantitative part of the MCAT he scored 94, with a 97 in science and 72 on the general information section, higher than the average for regular admits. Despite such distinctive qualifications, Davis rejected him twice. But even though he found no sympathy from liberal administrators and the ACLU, he didn’t take no for an answer.

The reservation of 16 seats for minorities, he charged, meant that he could only compete for 84. The minorities, on the other hand, could compete for all 100 places and were also assured of 16. Believing he had been denied admission purely on the grounds of race, Bakke filed suit and won. The State Supreme Court ordered his admission but the UC regents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A record 120 organizations filed briefs, 83 for the university, 32 for Bakke, and five urging the Court not to decide the case.

The Court held for Bakke, ruling that race could be a factor in admissions but not the type of quotas employed by Davis. Chavis says he bears no animosity toward Bakke, who "just reflected what a whole lot of other white people were thinking in the first place." But he portrays the twice-rejected Bakke as the one who got the special deal. He came to Davis, Chavis says, because he couldn’t make it in Minnesota, which seems unlikely from the data. More important, Chavis says Bakke sought out UC Davis because he knew the head of admissions: "They set it up to get this to happen at Davis."

As far as being a poster-child for affirmative action is concerned, Chavis says, "I volunteered. I basically put myself out as a poster-boy for this good kind of thing." He was so visible that it was natural that Nicholas Lemann would seek him out when doing his article for the New York Times. "We need to go back and do a comparison of what we are doing now compared to what Bakke did," says Chavis. "And it just so happened that the guy Lemann, who wrote the article for the Times, came up with the idea and came and approached me with it. I said, that’s exactly what I want to do and you could do it a lot better."

Chavis recently told the Los Angeles Times that "I don’t mean to boast, but I’m somewhat of a hero in the community." He does have a loyal following because he lives in Compton, a rough, gang-ridden town. But he is no storefront doctor doing charity work. Chavis’s house, surely the largest in the area, boasts a three-car garage, swimming pool, and satellite dish, with the requisite BMW out front. In the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Lemann said the place had "a touch of Graceland" to it.

After Davis, Chavis interned at USC, specializing in ob-gyn. He told me that he has delivered more than 10,000 children and performed "thousands" of abortions. "As far as I’m concerned," he says, "I’m one of the best abortionists in the city. Other doctors have complications, they call me and ask me what can they do to fix it up. Or they ask me to come and finish it for them." Others tell a different story.

Cathy Chavis, one of his former wives and who worked in his office for nine years, has testified to the state medical board that the doctor was "wrong a number of times," about the age of a fetus. In one case, she said, after Chavis removed the arm of a fetus, the patient was determined to be eight months pregnant. The patient was then taken to the hospital to deliver the baby. According to Cathy, Chavis would keep the fetus in formaldehyde for up to 30 days. She never knew what he did with remains but said that one day the sink in the office backed up and she saw "pieces of bone and fingers."

There were also problems with deliveries. At Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Chavis used forceps to pull a baby out of a woman not sufficiently dilated. In that situation, hospital policy called for a cesarean and administrators, always wary of lawsuits, had Chavis monitored. He charged that he had been singled out for discipline not given to whites and filed a discrimination suit. The hospital said it was simply a question of substandard medical practices. Chavis was offered $750,000 out of court but turned it down. The court awarded him $1.1 million but this was overturned on appeal and he got nothing. Chavis also maintained a running conflict with St. Francis Hospital, just down the street from his Lynwood office, charging that administrators there discriminated racially against nurses and practiced unfair competition against Martin Luther King Hospital. St. Francis has since suspended his surgery privileges there, which he attributes both to race prejudice and the Catholic hospital’s animosity against him for performing abortions.

Records of complaints about doctors are not public information in California, but according to a source close to the case, Chavis was about "in the middle of the pack" as far as malpractice accusations against him. For a year Chavis worked for fellow physician Samuel McMillan, who told medical investigators that Chavis is a skilled gynecologist but "he is aggressive, can be careless, and will continue with a procedure despite the patient’s pain." Some of McMillan’s own patients refused care from Chavis, who in late 1995 starting using an empty suite to perform liposuction. It was an after-hours business: in the morning, McMillan’s staff would find used gowns and miscellaneous supplies. He was concerned because his insurance did not cover liposuction and that suite was under construction, with building materials around, making sterilization difficult. McMillan called him on it and the two doctors parted company, with Chavis opening his own office down the hall. Chavis told me he left because McMillan’s staffers were making off with the money.

Chavis’s practice took a sharp downturn when he diversified into liposuction, which can hardly be construed as a priority for inner-city women. A brochure for his "New Attitude Body Sculpting" says that "Liposuction is a safe and easy cosmetic surgical procedure which gives you the ability to smooth and contour the shape of your body today . . . a beautifully sculpted body lifts the spirit." For an abdomen he charged $1,500, abdomen, side rolls, waist, and back, $2,500, with abdomen, side rolls, waist, back, and thighs running $4,000.

His effective partner in the venture was Carlitha Allen, alias Carlitha Hellen, his nurse and girlfriend, who told the medical board that she owned a piece of the business. On July 7 the medical board issued a suspension order against Allen, who claimed a BSN degree she had not completed and had practiced surgery without a license.

Experienced board-certified plastic surgeons—which Chavis is not—agree that liposuction is a low-risk procedure, often performed on an out-patient basis. Chavis says he undertook the practice not for money but for altruistic reasons, to help women regain their shape after childbirth. But he acknowledges that liposuction, in which customers usually pay cash up front, is hugely competitive. To attract clients Chavis redecorated his office, adding a marble floor, fountain, weight room, Jacuzzi, and big-screen television. He also sent a limousine to pick up his patients, who have described their first consultation as "a sales pitch," with Chavis showing before-and-after photos on his computer and in an album.

Chavis’s training in liposuction consisted of a four-day course at the Liposuction Institute of Beverly Hills, but he did not take the second part of the training, in which he was to perform 20 liposuction surgeries on his own patients at the Institute’s surgery center, with the Institute’s David Matlock assisting and supervising. In testimony to the California Medical Board, Matlock said Chavis was not fully trained, a "maverick," and "dangerous" in the way he performed liposuction with no anesthesiologist present.

Even after the death of Tammaria Cotton and serious complications with a series of other liposuction complications on other black women, Chavis comes across as a calm authority on the practice.

"The plastic surgeons do less of the liposuction than the ob-gyns and other people that do it," he says, "but they have the highest death rate and complication rate because they insist on doing it under general anesthesia, and they insist on not going on to better techniques," a reference to the tumescent technique Chavis preferred. In this approach, the doctor floods the fatty tissue below the skin with a solution laced with drugs such as Lydocaine and Epinephrine. These provide a local anesthetic and facilitate the suctioning away of the fat with a cylindrical instrument called a "cannula," inserted through a number of small incisions.

On May 11, 1996, Chavis performed a general anesthetic liposuction on Yolanda Mukhalian at the Westwood Surgery Center. In a written declaration to the medical board, Mukhalian said they agreed to do only her abdomen but Chavis also removed fat from her buttocks, hips, and thighs. Afterward she was sweating and her heart began racing. When Chavis was driving her back to her hotel, fluid was gushing down her legs.

"Fuck it," he said. "I’ll just take you to my house."

Despite subsequent ministrations by Chavis at his home and office, her condition worsened. She was admitted to hospital on June 8, 1996, with acute abdominal pain, weakness, nausea, and an astonishing 70 percent blood loss. She also suffered abdominal scarring and the shape of her thighs remained irregular.

Also in May 1996, Chavis performed liposuction on Annette Rucker (not her real name; the names of those in cases not yet public will not be revealed), who felt weak after surgery but was left standing unattended by Chavis’s aide, Allen. Rucker later testified that she fell face first on the floor, injuring her nose.

"You fucking bitch!" Chavis yelled at Allen. "You can get your shit and get the fuck out, ‘cause I don’t give a damn, ‘cause you don’t treat my patients like that." But Allen stayed on, contributing to Chavis’s troubles.

Linda Kinchen (name changed) said that before her May 30, 1996, surgery Chavis had no blood work done, checked no vital signs or medical, and provided no pre-surgery instructions. She was not prepped for surgery except, as she testified to the medical board, "Carlitha cut some of my pubic hair and scrubbed the area really hard—it hurt." Kinchen asked Chavis and Allen why they were not wearing gloves.

"Why, do I need them?" said Chavis, "Do you have something I’m going to catch?"

After surgery Kinchen could not walk and was urinating in bed. After several calls, Chavis showed up with Allen, who told the patient, "Smoke a joint. You have one around here, don’t you?" On another trip to Chavis’s office, Kinchen, who remains disfigured and scarred from surgery, heard screams from the operating room, with Chavis explaining that "Carlitha is cleaning up a patient."

Personnel in the adjoining medical office, where Chavis used to work, made four tapes of "horrific screaming" by patients, with Chavis telling them, "Don’t talk to the doctor while he is working" and "Liar, liar, pants on fire." In one case a patient screamed "stop," and a voice could be heard asking another doctor for advice on a patient who was experiencing trouble.

Chavis told me that with the liposuction pump running, you can’t hear anything through the wall. He even started the machine up to prove the point.

On June 21, 1996, Chavis used that machine to suction 2,200 cubic centimeters of fat from Valarie Lawrence, who lost 300 ccs of blood during the procedure and fainted three hours after discharge. She made her way to the hospital but Chavis discharged her with a Foley catheter and IV tubes still in place, then took her home, did not take her vital signs, and did not monitor her condition. The next day Chavis left her in the care of his 18-year-old niece and went to perform liposuction on Tammaria Cotton.

Chavis removed 3,500 ccs of fat through 11 incisions in Mrs. Cotton, who moaned and complained of pain during the procedure. At one point she complained she couldn’t breathe, to which Chavis replied, "If you can talk you can breathe." Her husband, Jimmy, who stayed with her throughout, was alarmed at her drop in blood pressure and the "red fluid" pooling on the floor.

Chavis left the office to attend to Lawrence, who was still at his Compton home, and made no arrangements for another physician to monitor Mrs. Cotton. The limo departed to pick up singer Patti Labelle at the LA airport and the two medical assistants also left, leaving the distressed patient with her husband and Carlitha Allen, Chavis’s nurse and girlfriend, who called the departed doctor and yelled at him, "You should have never left."

By 5:30 Mrs. Cotton’s pulse was faint and Allen called 911. "There was a lot of blood on the floor, on the exam table itself, and on her and her clothing," testified a firefighter paramedic, who believed Mrs. Cotton was dead when they arrived. She was pronounced dead later that evening at St. Francis Hospital, with "immediate cause" on the death certificate reading: "Hypothermia and fluid overload. Tumescent anesthesia for liposuction."

"It was only liposuction," said a horrified Jimmy Cotton, who was told by nurse Allen that at least he would get his money back. Chavis, who maintains he did nothing wrong, blamed Jimmy Cotton, who in the doctor’s absence had attempted to put his wife in a wheelchair. "Mr. Cotton, if he didn’t commit murder, it would have been at least second-degree murder because you don’t just do that. You don’t take things if you don’t know what you are doing," Chavis told me. He told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Cotton should be accused of "second-degree murder, if not first-degree murder."

The death of a patient in any case is a serious matter and a death following a normally safe procedure can bring swift sanctions. For example, a patient died after liposuction by W. Earle Matory Jr., a board-certified plastic surgeon in Orange County. Within two months, the state medical board suspended his license. But Chavis, who is not board-certified, was allowed to continue practicing for more than a year.

A longstanding board-certified plastic surgeon interviewed for this story notes that when doctors experience complications, they normally take steps to ensure that the problems do not recur. But Chavis continued to experience the same difficulties. This, said the surgeon, who is experienced in all types of liposuction, raised questions about his suitability to practice.

Fiona Price, (not her real name) told the medical board that she was not washed or otherwise prepped for surgery and that Chavis and Allen wore scrubs but no masks or head coverings. Chavis told her liposuction would not hurt, but she said that "it was extremely painful" and she screamed throughout most of the August 29, 1996, procedure during which Allen, who some have noted holds considerable influence over Chavis, became annoyed with the doctor for working too slowly.

"That’s not right," she said. "Here, let me show you how to do it." Price testified that the pair struggled over the cannula, and that he did more than she had asked. She told Chavis she was having trouble breathing and her heart was racing.

"So, what do you want me to do about it?" Chavis said.

Price’s boyfriend Andrew (not his real name) heard her screaming and went into the room. Chavis told him to get out. As Andrew later testified, "Fiona seemed limp, but the doctor and Carlitha said she didn’t have any anesthetic, that she was just tired. . . . The doctor told me to ignore her, that all women complain of pain and say they’re dying. He said ‘don’t take her to a hospital because they don’t know anything about liposuction and they’ll hurt her.’ He’s a doctor—I thought he knew what he was talking about." Andrew further told the medical board that Price was having trouble on the way out and that Chavis and Allen had her urinate in the parking lot. "It was awful," he said. "Right there on the street and with the limo driver there."

When Chavis came to her home, he only checked her pulse and again told Andrew to ignore her requests for medical intervention. Two days later Price became incoherent and Andrew drove her to Harbor UCLA Medical Center. She had lost 60 percent of her blood and her stitches had become infected.

After a May, 1997, liposuction at Chavis’s office, Renee Mitchell (name changed) found that her incisions did not heal properly. She told the medical board that by mid-June, after further treatments from Chavis, her hip tripled in size and became abnormally hard. The next month, more than a year after the death of Tammaria Cotton, Chavis’ license was suspended.

It was not the first time. The license had been suspended in April 1996 when he failed to make court-ordered child-support payments. Performing surgery while under suspension is a criminal offense and part of the long list of charges against him. These include multiple counts of gross negligence and incompetence, including the "inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician." Letting him continue, ruled administrative law judge Samuel Reyes, "will endanger the public health, safety, and welfare." But Chavis remains defiant. "As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t do anything wrong," he told me, making it clear he meant all the cases mentioned by the medical board, including the Cotton, Lawrence, and Mukhalian cases (Cotton, Lawrence, Mukhalian, and others, all black women, were in life-threatening situations), and using the word "conspiracy" for the action against him.

In his response to the board Chavis cites an "Unholy Alliance" out to vilify him. When board officials interviewed him, he showed up in his scrubs but would not answer questions until they revealed whether they were Catholics. "If Minister Farrakhan sent in a complaint on you, and then the first investigator doing the interview was one of the ministers from the Nation of Islam, some people might say that looks unfair," says Chavis.

The plastic surgeon interviewed for this story says the notion that California hospital officials or state medical officials would discriminate on the basis of religion or race is a joke. But Chavis, the beneficiary of preferences, still sees racism everywhere.

A pamphlet handed out by his office says that "the system" is not treating Chavis fairly and that "this harsh and unjustified action taken by the Attorney General and the Medical Board and against Dr. Chavis and against the people of our community is not justified. It has hurt our community and all of the people who have come to depend on Dr. Chavis and his medical expertise." A handout of his own is even more revealing.

"I need your help," it reads. "I have become a political victim of the system and especially the Medical Board of California." If he is a victim, it is of a system that admits people with lower qualifications to medical school, holds them up as exemplars of that process, then abandons them when they have difficulty and are no longer useful as an argument for race preferences. Though invited to comment on the Chavis case, post-Tammaria Cotton, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Tom Hayden, and others who used Chavis for their own political ends declined to so. "If you are a doctor or lawyer and admitted with a preference the first thing that goes wrong, we gravitate to ‘was he qualified?’" says Ward Connerly. "It’s the problem of stigma. The opposition denies it but it is a real problem."

And what of Allan Bakke, the fully qualified "regular" admit? Far from being the stereotype of the rich, remote physician that Kennedy and others implied, he achieved a difficult career change and now works as an anesthesiologist in Rochester, Minnesota, at Olmstead Community Hospital, which serves a working-class populace, including minorities. Bakke does not speak to the press and for that one can hardly blame him. He likely senses that the media would make light of any claim that he changed careers in order to help people.


(Copyright 1997, Heterodoxy)

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