Doctor Derailed

Fen-Phen conviction results in prison sentence

Phoenix native Debbie Knight says she's satisfied with the prison sentence meted out November 9 to infamous "Internet Doctor" Pietr Hitzig. Hitzig was sentenced in a Baltimore federal court to almost four years in prison after his conviction on 33 counts of illegally prescribing medicine, often to patients he treated over the Internet and telephone.

One of 12 named victims in the highly publicized case was Knight's younger brother, Alvin Chernov, who committed suicide at his father's Glendale home in September 1997 after Hitzig prescribed him the diet-drug combination known as Fen-Phen ("The Internet Internist," Paul Rubin, March 19, 1998). The "Fen" referred to the appetite depressant fenfluramine, and the "Phen" to phentermine. Both are amphetamines, and the combination had been widely prescribed for weight loss before the federal Food and Drug Administration took it off the market in 1997.

Chernov had been suffering from severe depression, and had been hospitalized at the Maricopa Medical Center shortly before he died at the age of 25. Hitzig promised Chernov in e-mails and phone calls that his costly protocol would quickly cure the depression. The Harvard-educated physician also told other patients -- he claimed at one point to have treated about 8,000 -- that he'd successfully "cured" AIDS, cancer, Gulf War syndrome, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

Coincidentally, two days before Chernov shot himself, the FDA ordered the recall of fenfluramine and dexenfluramine after studies linked the drugs to possible heart-valve disorders.

Knight, who testified at Hitzig's jury trial last June, also spoke in federal Judge J. Frederick Motz's courtroom before Hitzig's sentencing.

"While some may feel it is not enough time, the overall objective has been, at least in my opinion, reached," she tells New Times. "Pietr Hitzig can no longer practice medicine. He will never again be able to obtain the needed DEA license to prescribe controlled substances -- ever again. He will not have open access to the Internet. I feel secure that, never again, will Hitzig have the opportunity to harm another person."

Others spoke at the sentencing, including two police officers who spoke of a patient who shot himself to death in 1997 in the driveway of Hitzig's home, in a Baltimore suburb.

The 60-year-old Hitzig told Judge Motz at his sentencing that "I alone have to be responsible for my actions." But he apparently was unrepentant, telling the jurist he still believes in the Fen-Phen protocol.

The Baltimore Sun reported that Judge Motz said of Hitzig before sentencing him, "Out of arrogance, he turned human beings into guinea pigs -- that's essentially what happened in this case."

 
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