Take Two Bottles of These. Call Me When You're Dead

Dr. Willard Hunter's repeated misprescription of dangerous drugs has contributed to two deaths. But the state medical board doesn't see any reason to revoke his doctor's license.

But it wasn't always that way. In the 1970s and 1980s, he lived in Paradise Valley and invested in Charolais cattle. He and Dora had a home in Guaymas, Mexico, a 65-acre farm in Gilbert, ranch land in eastern Arizona. As the years passed and Hunter began losing his fortune, he repeatedly went to court, seeking remedies to his many real estate and business disputes.

He didn't like to lose money.
He liked to make it.
He shared offices with several different doctors, including orthopedic surgeon Ranjit Bisla. While with Bisla, Hunter seemed to be making a great deal of money--he speculated in real estate, invested in Peterbilt trucks and Arabian horses.

Bisla "retired" after being disciplined by Bomex in 1989 for performing unnecessary surgeries.

Hunter once observed that he was a pretty good doctor, had performed a lot of important operations during his decadeslong orthopedic-surgery practice in Phoenix. "I was the first one to do anterior cervical disk incision with a fusion [a back operation] in this state," he said. "I was the first to do leg lengthening. I was the first one to use internal fixation of the spine in 1961. I was the first one to do congenital hip surgery."

He was also one of the first in Phoenix to be slapped with a major medical malpractice case in connection with a highly controversial experimental treatment for back pain called "chymopapain injection."

The victim, Katherine Gaston, alleged that Hunter used the wrong-length needle for the procedure, piercing her bowel as well as her spinal column and causing a crippling bacterial infection of her spine and brain. As a result, she said, she lost control of her bodily functions and ultimately became a paraplegic.

Gaston sued Hunter, the company that manufactured the chymopapain and St.Luke's Hospital for the 1970 operation.

Hunter, the hospital and the drug company all denied negligence, and Gaston lost her case in Superior Court in part because the judge would not allow her expert witness to testify.

Gaston appealed the case, won a new trial, and was awarded a $1.75 million settlement by a Phoenix jury in 1980. (By this time, the hospital and drug company had been dismissed from the suit.)

Neither Gaston nor her lawyers could be located for comment.
In a way, the case united Valley doctors, who began holding meetings on how to avoid being named in medical malpractice suits.

Hunter himself has been named in a relatively few malpractice suits--a total of 13 in state court, all of which allege negligent orthopedic surgery on adults and children, or careless surgical aftercare.

In each case, Hunter denied negligence or, more recently, simply failed to respond to the complaint.

Nearly half of the lawsuits were filed in the past five years.
Hunter won only one of these recent suits, filed by a woman who represented herself in court. She claimed Hunter's postsurgical care caused her to develop a blood clot in her lung because he failed to prescribe critical anticlotting medication. Her case was brought up recently at Bomex, prompting one doctor to comment that he worried about Hunter's "mental health."

Two of the recent suits allege that Hunter operated on the wrong limb. In one instance, Hunter admitted operating on the wrong ankle of a 12-year-old Tucson boy at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "It happens," Hunter later said. The parents, who live in Tucson and could not be located for comment, settled out of court.

In a pending case, Hunter allegedly operated on the wrong knee. His patient, Margaret Trapp, said Hunter made a joke out of it. She remembers him telling her: "I thought I was doing you a favor."

Officials at the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners feel they have appropriately disciplined Willard Hunter. He can no longer perform orthopedic surgery. He can no longer prescribe the drugs that helped kill two people.

They have protected the public, they say, from any dangers the doctor may have previously posed. Even though Hunter may still practice other forms of medicine--pediatrics, for instance--they see no reason to revoke his license.

And they see no reason to refer the overdose cases to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, or any other prosecutorial office, for review for possible criminal prosecution.

There is no evidence in the public record that Hunter has blamed himself for any part of his many personal or professional troubles. He seems not to understand the role he played in the deaths of Jeff Sykes or Geraldine Dodson.

He seems, instead, to blame the victims.
"Most of the people [patients] I got, I kept on drugs because they needed it," he explained in 1994. "But most of the ones that I got were already on drugs, put on, I believe, almost 100 percent by someone else. But I kept giving it to them.

"I've learned that even though you're a feeling, caring person, that doesn't count, because patients use you."

But that type of manipulation, the families of Jeff Sykes and Geraldine Dodson say, is exactly what they warned Hunter about.

If only he'd listened.
Nearly six years after Geraldine Dodson's death, the family finally pooled enough money to buy a headstone for her grave. It was ordered last month.

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