Dr. Fisher and Mr. Hyde

He's been the Valley's most prominent AIDS doctor. But now Ken Fisher faces charges that threaten his reputation and his career.

The accusations against Dr. Ken Fisher seem more like a case of mistaken identity than of sexual abuse; surely, you think, these people are not talking about the same man.

One Dr. Fisher is a well-known and respected physician who began treating AIDS at a time when many physicians literally wouldn't even touch an HIV-positive patient. He has worked around the clock, seven days a week, taking care of people without money, without insurance, without hope. He has saved lives.

The other Dr. Fisher is less well-known. He is sketched out in the stark language of legal briefs and disciplinary hearings. Former patients accuse him of breaking the most basic compact of trust between a caregiver and the sick. They say Fisher sexually molested them under the pretense of medical examinations; some felt they had no choice but to go along if they wanted to get medical care.

The accusations against Fisher have split the gay community; some believe he's betrayed their trust while others, simply, still believe in him. Fisher denies any wrongdoing, and his attorney says the allegations are part of a smear campaign by other doctors and former patients holding grudges. The doctor's accusers maintain that Phoenix's champion of AIDS care has a darker side.

But despite how far the good deeds of Dr. Fisher seem from the bad acts laid at his feet, they are inextricably bound together by one fact: There's only one Ken Fisher to face these charges. And they could cost him his license to practice medicine.

When Ken Fisher began practicing medicine in Phoenix in 1981, the general public was barely aware of AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and the virus which causes it, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). At the time, there were no movies of the week, no Ryan White, and no massive public-education effort about the disease.

And many doctors weren't much more knowledgeable. Some still referred to AIDS as GRID--Gay-Related Immune Deficiency--and the name reflected many of the prejudices which still stigmatize those with the illness.

Ken Fisher, already one of the few openly gay doctors in Phoenix, quickly became the first--and, for a time, the only--family practitioner to devote his practice to treating AIDS patients.

Through his attorney, Fisher declined to be interviewed for this article, but friends and supporters describe his career as a constant struggle against AIDS.

Ken Fisher was one of the first doctors in Arizona to address AIDS and HIV, says Jeff Ofstedahl, the editor of Echo, a magazine serving the gay community, and a friend of Fisher's. And this was at a time when doctors wouldn't even see people with HIV.

Former employees say Fisher worked a grueling schedule in order to keep up with the demand for his services: He would do rounds at the hospital at 4:30 a.m., be in the office by 5, and work until late evening, seven days a week.

Fisher's work wasn't limited to his practice, either. He served on the founding boards of many of the Valley's AIDS organizations, as medical director for the first clinics to treat AIDS patients. And he brought clinical trials of new AIDS drugs to Phoenix. He helped establish the first and only AIDS hospice in Phoenix, and then became a vocal critic of it after he felt a corporate buyout made it stray from its mission.

Fisher also spoke to groups, spreading the word about the disease and warning people about its consequences. He could always be relied on for a quote for reporters doing articles about AIDS. He treated the former publisher of the Scottsdale Progress, Chuck Pettit. If you wanted to know about HIV in Arizona, you went to Ken Fisher.

While this brought Fisher notice, it didn't bring him wealth. He would give patients more care than their insurance covered, and if they were uninsured, he often worked unpaid. Former employees note that there were bills going back as far as a decade.

That was the side of Fisher everyone knew. Anything else was just rumor and gossip. Until the State Board of Medical Examiners (BOMEX) began an investigation into Fisher's conduct in 1996. Then the other Fisher began to emerge.

In the privacy of his practice, Fisher was very different from the public, outspoken healer of unfortunate AIDS victims, former employees and patients say. And it's this Ken Fisher, the man behind the curtain, who faces losing his license to practice medicine.

BOMEX first investigated inappropriate sexual behavior by Fisher in early 1996, after a complaint from a patient that Fisher had fondled him during a procedure, causing him to ejaculate. Fisher denied the charge, and the board never found him guilty of anything. But BOMEX and Fisher reached a compromise--a Stipulation and Order, agreed to by both Fisher and the board--which did place some stringent rules on Fisher's practice.

Fisher, under the terms of the order, was to have a chaperone present at all examinations, get treatment from a board-approved therapist, submit to competency exams and appear for interviews at BOMEX's request. Any violation of the order could result in his license being suspended or revoked. While Fisher had received letters of concern from the board for unrelated complaints in the past, this was the most serious action BOMEX had ever taken against him.

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