Blind trust: Don’t assume you’re seeing a doctor — even at the Mayo Clinic

At 65, Paul Phillips was ready to retire. He'd raised his four kids, sold his Phoenix produce company, and even bought a 40-foot RV to drive across the country with his wife LuWanna.

Phillips was working on his golf game, in anticipation of all the free time he'd have. Even more, he enjoyed playing ping-pong and catch with his grandkids.

But on March 13, 2001, Phillips found himself at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, waiting to see an ophthalmologist. The vision in his left eye had suddenly gone blurry, and he was seeing floating specks of light in the same eye. Phillips has diabetes; he's had it for 18 years. He and LuWanna knew failing vision could be related, so she insisted he get the best help available. As LuWanna later recalled, she called the Mayo Clinic and scheduled an appointment with Paul's ophthalmologist.

Phillips fidgeted anxiously in the waiting room, wringing his hands — still leathery and calloused from 40 years of handling boxes of fruit and vegetables.

Then a nurse called him to examination room number 9, where she asked him to read an eye chart. After the nurse left, a man wearing the standard tie and suit coat of a Mayo physician — a trademark in the healthcare company's facilities — entered the room. He held an Executive Glaucoma Screening Form and Phillips' chart in his hand. He asked a number of questions and then examined both of Phillips' eyes.

That man, Paul Hughes, diagnosed Phillips on the spot with "K. sicca" or eye inflammation. He explained that the problem was simply dry eyes and Phillips need not worry about his left eye. Hughes recommended over-the-counter salve and drops, known as "tears." Then he walked Phillips to the billing desk, shook his hand and thanked him for visiting the Mayo Clinic.

On the way home, with LuWanna behind the wheel, Phillips wondered aloud why the doctor hadn't dilated his eye. He concluded the doctor knew more about eyes than he did.

He used the drops, but they didn't alleviate the blurriness or floating flashes of light.

Two weeks later, the Phillips were sitting in a movie at the Deer Valley Harkins Theatre on Bell Road when Paul's left eye went completely dark — as if somebody had dropped a veil over it.


The retina in his left eye had detached. The symptoms Paul Phillips reported at Mayo were classic signs of a tearing retina; according to the Mayo Clinic's own literature, if caught at that point when he'd visited the clinic, the condition has about an 85 percent chance of successful treatment with retinal reattachment. Once it had detached, it was much tougher. And today, after a series of surgeries, Phillips is permanently blind in his left eye.

So why did the Mayo Clinic fail to properly diagnose Phillips' run-of-the-mill malady?

Could be because Paul Hughes, the man who treated him — who held his chart and looked in his eye and recommended drops — isn't a doctor at all. He's not a physician's assistant or a nurse, either.

In fact, Hughes has no formal medical training and has never been licensed to provide healthcare or even sell glasses in Arizona. And yet, for almost 20 years, Paul Hughes "triaged" eye patients in the Mayo Clinic's ophthalmology department, deciding which doctor, if any, they should see. Some patients, like Phillips, never did see a doctor — or any other licensed practitioner beyond a nurse. Phillips says he wasn't told this. He assumed he'd seen a doctor; his wife had asked for an appointment with one; he'd been seen by a nurse, then by a man in a coat who certainly looked like a doctor and never said otherwise.

Even after Phillips' catastrophe, when the case had gone to court — where a jury would eventually award Phillips $3.5 million — Paul Hughes apparently had no contrition.

"I don't feel like I need to be certified in something I'm efficient at," Hughes said to the jury about the treatment he gave Phillips.

When Phillips learned that he was misdiagnosed by a non-doctor, he and his lawyer told the Mayo Clinic they could donate $2 million to the blind, or they could brace for a lawsuit.

Mayo chose the lawsuit, and lost.

In July 2006, a jury found in Phillips' favor; the judge lowered the medical malpractice judgment to $750,000, an amount that matches similar cases involving blindness.

Phillips says he has yet to spend a penny of it. (After the emotional turmoil of the trial, he's decided to keep the money.) Instead, he's spent the last year mourning the recent death of his wife of 50 years, as well as the loss of his depth perception.

Phillips' story is a case in point that when you visit the doctor, you can't assume you're seeing a doctor — or even a trained practitioner. Not at the Mayo Clinic. Not anywhere. New Times reported the details of this case mainly from interviews with Phillips, court pleadings, depositions, and transcripts from the trial.

It's hard to fault Paul Phillips for assuming that a practitioner in a suit and tie, holding his chart at the Mayo Clinic, was qualified to give a diagnosis. After all, Phillips had gone to the best. He knew of Mayo's international reputation for leading the way in cancer research. And Mayo had just been named the number one choice of hospital by consumers in the Phoenix area for the third year in a row, according to the National Research Corporation.

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11 comments
judd6
judd6

The one thing I use is Crocodile Tears Eye Drops http://www.croctears.com to lubricate my eyes which really helps after treatment. My doctor uses it while I was under surgery and recommended it to me.

Slavasawka
Slavasawka

I too had gone to the Mayo clinic in Scottsdale on three different occasions..stupid me.. I never learn, but whom can you trust? I had had horrendous heartburn from acid reflux down to my lower colon with ulcer pains in my left side and gall bladder pains in my righ side. My dipstick doctor kept giving me Nexium, Zantac, losec and other prescription medications for heartburn plus celebrex etc.( after all she has to keep the pharmacuetical company happy and get her free trips to resorts) I also had gastroscopies and the first one I did not want with good reason, but I thought , "doctor knows best "so I had it done which left me with a dislocated jaw, pain in my right neck and right side of head for two years and many tests. Now I have hearing loss in my left ear plus constant tinnitus from this botched gastroscopy done by what I told my female doctor that I did not want done as this surgeon appeared to be a whirlwind (others have called him abrupt) but I went and had it done anyway with yet another one as I was in horrendous burning pain. This doctor actually called me a hypochondriac, koo-koo and said no one believes me. So I stopped going to her, but went to the mayo clinic and had all kinds of tests done for $10 000.00. I was assigned to a Michael Hogan who was arrogant and rude .And did not diagnose my pains. In fact he did not show up for my last appointment.Finally on a trip to Manhatten, a nurse travelling with the group told me about a clinc in Toronto that she had gone to as her own doctor would not spend any time with her and got cured at this clinic. I had a test for H. Pylori which I had requested from my own doctor previously, but she refused. After all there is no money in a simple blood test for H. Pylori which had been invented by some Australian doctors. I was diagnosed with H.Pylori, given a week's medication and have had no heartburn/chest pains since. One good 70 year-old specialist in Toronto. Most of the others I've seen are incapable of everything and have caused me many iatrogenic injuries.Now these other doctors aside from the one at mayo clinc are in Canada as unfortunately, I was born in Canada and can't leave the country without leaving a 25% departure tax from all my assets and a 25% yearly- with holding tax from my income.I am really fed up with this socialistic health care system with its government funded multiculturism for which I am one of only 40% Canadians who are paying high taxes for all this.And the rest of the parasites get free health care, medication, gym memberships, free rides etc.In a country considerd to be a democracy, I should have the option of 'private health care' or public health care as the citzens of Australia have. I lived and worked there in the '80's and '90's and keep in touch with some of the Australians. For example, one woman used to go for care to the public sector, but when an urgent matter came up and the wait time was too long, she paid $6000.00 to have the surgery done sooner.Now why can't Canada and the U.S.A. figure this one out?I am in excruciating eye pain, nasal pain, numbness and drooling from the corner of my left mouth and whole left side of face and head as during one of my cataract surgeries where I assumed the experienced ophthalmolgist would be doing the surgery, I heard a voice ask,"DO I CUT DEEP, DO I MOVE MORE TO LEFT?" and I flinched in terror as I realized a resident was using me for training purposes. The doctor's lawyer lied and said that I forgot that the doctor introduced me to this trainee from india and I gave consent. Imagine the poor Alzheimers patients being used.I would never give consent for a resident to use me for training purposes as I would definitely go to a private health care experienced professional, but that's not allowed in Canada.

And of course I did go in 2006 to the mayo clinic and yes, John Creasman told me there was nothing wrong with my eye and that was after a man had checked my eye and said my vision fluctuates which it does. Was that Paul hughes? In 2008, I went back and another eye doctor at mayo clinic told me he would not evaluate my eye surgery (I guess he does not want to implicate himself) but told me to take fish oil for dry eye. I have spent $3000.00 one year for restasis as Canada does not have this medication for chronic inflammation and dry eye and it dos help some.They are always shoving these residents from third world countries in my face who can hardly speak English. I have left many times as the supervising doctor who many times is not in the room, but comes in when I refuse to be have biopsies done or have my eyes checked by a first year resident from paskitan who could not turn on the machine, but had to ask the receptionist to help her. I pay money to get to these places, but then have to leave as the doctors get angry and won't check or do the testing. They are more into making money training these new comers than treating the patients. A neuro-ophthalomolgist whose first year resident could not turn on the eye machine, came in and yelled at me," she's a doctor for christ's sake," when I refused to be checked by her.

I told him, "I'm going to have to leave this country before it's free

BUT WHERE TO GO?

I told him " I'm going to have to leave this country before it's free health care system kills me."

Phoebe Mcguire
Phoebe Mcguire

Yeah, me too. I went to Mayo with high hopes of finally getting a simple case of high blood sugar officially diagnosed. After about 6 months of this and that, they were finally catching on because my assigned doctor finally actually looked at my lab work. But, six months is too long,for something that easy. I've dumped them and have now found a nice internest MD closer to my house.

They don't like it when they are wrong and will do everything they can not to admit that maybe they blew it, including projecting the blame on the patient.

There is enough great medical talent in the greater Phoenix Ares that I do not need these elite bullies to help me.

Adios Mayo

rich
rich

There is no money in health or happiness..... and that is why this is allowed in this country

My prayers go out to Paul Phillips and all of you that are hurt by the medical profession, I too been hurt!

Obama wants health care reform,Mr. Obama, reform this treatment, before you make me buy cheap health insurance.

Dr. Creasman for thinking it's Mr. Phillips fault for not asking if he's a doctor?! You are an jackass.And we should poke your eye out, and see how you feel.And to say he's honest when he committed purjury, and assumed an identity that is easily confussed with a doctor we should cut your tongue out, to protect honest trusting people.

And the medical board to allow this to happen... can't say what I'd like to do... I know your just doing your job,guess what that's exactly what the guards said at the concentration camps in world war II.

Until the laws are changed and office people and professionals can have the cops called on them like a crimminal that some are this WILL continue!!

OBAMA REFORM THIS FIRST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jennifer Scott FNP
Jennifer Scott FNP

I ALWAYS distinguish myself as a nurse practitioner and tell my patients what I am qualified to do as such. It is important for patients to ask questions about qualifications of others and ask to see credentials if they feel uncomfortable. I can't imagine losing function due to someone not trained to evaluate or treat. Shameful!http://www.npplace.com

gary
gary

Older American's should understand this but maybe not. I would expect someone younger to not know this. I guess anyone wearing a white smock could give the wrong impression. http://www.phoenix-life-insura...

Rebecca
Rebecca

My opinion of Mayo just plummeted.

jason
jason

This is a tragedy, and shouldn't have been allowed to happen.

helentroy4
helentroy4

I'm glad to see someone else has posted here. I'm sorry for your foot debacle. If you would have had an extra toe suddenly appear on your heel, they probably would have given you their finest orthopedic doctor and then jumped all over it to get newspaper coverage.

I can only reiterate what I wrote in my first post just in case anyone else is coming to read the comments: Find a private practice doctor who actually SEES their patients. So often, places like the Mayo and others, have so many underqualified underlings doing the work that you just don't get adequate medical care unless you have some strange disorder that they can work on and then document and get some air time and print coverage to further the myth that going to a clinic is better than seeing a private practice physician. Phoenix has so many good hospitals and a good private practice physician will do your surgery at any one of them where he/she has earned the right to operate.

CarlieS
CarlieS

Unfortunately, that's typical of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. I will never walk normally again after going in for what I thought was a bad ankle sprain. The "doctor" who examined it said it was a minor sprain and wouldn't even put an ace bandage on it. Sent me home and told me I was fine. Two weeks later, after the pain only grew worse and I was no longer able to put any weight on it, I called to ask for another appointment and was told by a nurse I didn't need to come in -- just wait and I'd get better. I had to call repeatedly just to get someone to agree to even give me an appointment. The same nurse greeted me and insisted I was imagining things - said I was fine. My foot was swollen to twice its normal size and nearly black and I was fine?

Fortunately, I saw a real doctor that time. She walked in, immediately told me I had a fractured foot and sent me to x-ray. I limped to the other end of the clinic, on another floor, and was xrayed by someone who kept taking xrays of the wrong foot. I had to argue to get her to xray the injured foot. The doctor I saw ordered an orthopedic boot, and when I got to orthopedics (again, on a broken foot), the non-doctor technician refused to provide the boot prescribed by the doctor, saying she knew more and didn't think I really needed it. She fitted me with a different device that caused extreme pain, and I had to walk BACK to the doctor's office and complain to several people just so I could talk to the doctor and get that corrected. By that time, the xrays were back and they learned that the xray technician had not taken the views ordered by the doctor, so I had to walk back to xray for more pictures, then back to orthopedics for the correct device (and was there subjected to rude derogatory remarks by the non-medical employee I'd complained about)

The foot was horribly fractured, and aggravated by the weeks following the original misdiagnosis by a Mayo Clinic "doctor." I went through a lengthy recovery and nearly had to have extensive reconstructive surgery. I was able to avoid the surgery, but had to learn to walk again and still can't walk normally. During my recovery, when I was supposed to have follow-up visits in orthopedics, the clerical staff would refuse to schedule appointments or to have medical staff call me because of the complaint I'd filed on the original woman who refused to fill my doctor's orders for an orthopedic boot.

The pain at the fracture site continues nearly 2 years later and I can't do a lot of things I could before.

The final insult was the bill. Mayo billed me for something like 12 xrays of that foot. That's how many wrong pictures were taken by someone who couldn't/wouldn't follow the instructions by the x-ray technician. They charged me for their mistakes, and my insurance company wouldn't pay for those. My total out-of-pocket should have been no more than a couple hundred, but it was around $2000.

The only bright spot in this nightmare was the physician I saw on the second visit. She was skilled, compassionate, and concerned, and made numerous calls to other medical staff to ensure that I received an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care. She even called my house to check on me. Unfortunately, she was the only person within the Mayo that I encountered during that time who was even remotely professional. If not for her, I may have suffered even worse permanent effects than I have.

Like the family in your story, I assumed that because I was being treated at the Mayo Clinic, I would receive the highest quality of care available today. That experience involving what seemed to be a minor injury has made me afraid to return to them for any care. I would not want a member of my family to be treated by anyone at the Mayo.

helentroy4
helentroy4

This is happening everywhere. My husband was diagnosed with spinal arthritis and 2 herniated disks by a private practice neurosurgeon in Phoenix. He immediately underwent three epidurals which really helped him a lot.

Fast forward to living in another state. His back was really acting up again. We made an appointment at the local University Hospital with a reputable neurosurgeon. When my husband arrived, he was see by a physician's assistant and never got to see the neurosurgeon and then was sent a HUGE bill that was much higher than the bill from the private practice neurosurgeon in Phoenix. The 'almost a doctor' didn't order an MRI, Xrays or a CT scan or anything. Just some anti-inflammatory medicine.

We wrote a letter to the University's Medical Center and told them that we were not paying the bill... that we did not get the doctor whom we made an appt. with. And that we would go to the press to warn others of this vaunted University's standards of practice.

They voided the bill.

Fast forward another year. This time he made an appt. with a neurosurgeon in private practice here after checking credentials etc. Turned out to be a great doc who said that perhaps if he had seen a real neurosurgeon a year earlier that something actually might have been possible to be done. The 'almost a doctor' didn't order an MRI, Xrays or a CT scan or anything.

We were the lucky ones. My husband's back problem is severe but now we have a private practice neurosurgeon who is working to help him be less in pain.

My advice to anyone who reads this: Do NOT go to a clinic at the Mayo or any other research or University hospital. Find yourself a well-respected doctor or surgeon who is in private practice. When making the appt., confirm that you WILL be seeing the actual doctor. If they say 'maybe not' then find another doctor who will be the one seeing. Cattle Call Clinics, as we call them, are exactly that. Mooooove em in and mooooove em out. And if you need surgery or whatever, you can have it provided at one of the good hospitals by your own private doc because most of them have privileges at them anyway.

 
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