Dr. Fisher and Mr. Hyde
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.
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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.
But in February 1997, BOMEX received a complaint that Fisher was not following the order and was seeing patients without a chaperone present. Another complaint, filed in June, accused Fisher of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior. BOMEX assigned investigator William Meidt to look into the allegations. (BOMEX would not comment about the ongoing complaint.)
Meidt gave his findings to the board at a meeting on September 26, 1997. Many people came forward to accuse Fisher of improper actions and comments, he reported. Former patients recounted that the doctor fondled one without a chaperone present, told another during a prostate exam, "Just pretend I'm a big black man," and masturbated a patient in his hospital room as he was waking, Meidt told the board.
Two of those who cooperated with BOMEX in the investigation repeated their complaints about Fisher to New Times.
Tory Mastrapasqua, a retired general contractor with AIDS, first began seeing Fisher around 1992, he recalls. Everything was fine, he says, until a relapse of meningitis put him in the hospital about three years ago.
Mastrapasqua was in a private room, waking from the effects of medication, when he realized Fisher was fondling him, he says.
"What I woke up to was being masturbated," Mastrapasqua says. "I asked him, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'I'm examining you.'"
Mastrapasqua says he told Fisher to stop, and the doctor did. They did not discuss it further, though he saw Fisher about three or four more times, he says. He then found another doctor.
"This was actually before any of the allegations surfaced," Mastrapasqua says, explaining his decision not to file a complaint at the time. "I didn't want to screw with it, didn't want the hassle. . . . I just put it all behind me. I just decided, I'm not going to screw with it at that point in my life."
Mastrapasqua had heard sexual comments from Fisher in the office, but that didn't prepare him for what he says happened.
"Oh, yeah, you know, that didn't bother me, the sexual innuendoes," he says. "I'm gay, he's gay, that's just the way gay people talk to each other. I mean, my friends and I will talk to each other like that. But when my friends come over, we don't grope each other."
"You don't really know as a patient what is necessary and what part isn't," Mastrapasqua says. "It has to be pretty blatant. I mean, I knew being masturbated wasn't normal. I never saw it coming. I never saw any kind of violation before."
Even though Mastrapasqua didn't take action against Fisher at the time, he thinks people ought to know what happened, which is why he cooperated with BOMEX, and why, he says, he's speaking out now.
"I viewed it as being a kind of a sexual desire. To me, I thought it could be a kind of dominancy," he says. "I was drugged and not all there. I really don't think he intended for me to wake up. I really think it was for his own benefit."
Another man who says he came forward to help BOMEX is John, an HIV-positive man who began seeing Fisher in 1995 and stopped eight months ago. (Like others interviewed for this article, John asked that his real name not be used, for fear of problems if his HIV-positive status is revealed.)
"He was the only doctor I knew about who would treat HIV," John says. "And when you're scared you're going to die next week, you don't have a lot of options."
John says Fisher fondled him and made sexual comments during examinations several times.
"First of all, he would have me totally strip for an examination or an injection," he says. "And during one injection . . . he grabbed my penis, started stroking it, and asked me, 'If I kept doing this, would it get big and hard?'"
Similar incidents happened seven or eight more times, "to a differing degree," John says. He decided he'd have to put up with the fondling to have any chance of surviving his disease.
John "finally came to my senses and dropped Fisher" after he confronted Fisher about the behavior in a phone call, he says.
Fisher didn't say anything in response, John recalls. He just remained silent. "But I've never received a bill," John says. "I find that very funny."
The incidents stayed with John for a long time, he says. "I felt--and this is probably going to seem funny, since a lot of people assume gay men feel like women anyway--but I felt like a woman. I felt very violated. I mean, here you are at his mercy. You're there for the right reasons, and then this happens. . . . I didn't think it would happen to me, and then it did. And then you wonder when it's going to happen again."
According to BOMEX's investigation, Fisher denied ever improperly touching any patients. However, the investigator told the board that Fisher admitted being in exam rooms with patients who were "self-stimulating."
BOMEX also conducted a review of Fisher's files to see if the doctor had a chaperone present in each examination. The investigator found 59 files which did not document the presence of a chaperone, although some of the files "implied" a chaperone's presence, he told the board.
However, two of Fisher's former employees, Debra Barrios and Jody DeMarco, say that the doctor often examined patients without a chaperone present in violation of the order.
Barrios, who worked as a managerial assistant in the practice from 1994 to mid-1996, remembers one occasion when she saw that Fisher was seeing patients alone.
"I'd tell the MA [Medical Assistant, who was supposed to be with Fisher in the examination], 'What are you doing? You've got to be in there with him,'" she says. "I told him, 'I don't care if you have to walk arm-in-arm with him, you've got to be in there with him.'"
After Barrios left, DeMarco, who did lab work and other duties in the practice from late 1995 to mid-1996, says the duty of seeing that patients were chaperoned fell to her, but she wasn't told why at first. Finally, she says, the office manager told her Fisher could lose his practice if he didn't have the chaperones.
But having someone with Fisher at all times during examinations was impossible, she says.
"For one thing, there was so much work to be done, there was no way a person could just stand there twiddling their thumbs," she says. "I'd get yelled at if I didn't have someone in there with him, and I'd say, 'Fine, hire someone.'"
For another thing, DeMarco says, Fisher would tell his employees to leave if they did stay in the examination room.
"If you did try to chaperone, you'd get kicked out," she says. "The office manager is there yelling at you that you've got to be in there, and you go in there and the doctor tells you to get the hell out. And one of these guys writes the checks, and the other guy signs the checks, so what are you supposed to do?"
Barrios and DeMarco have not been contacted by BOMEX, they say.
Fisher's attorney, Calvin Raup, says that Fisher did have a chaperone present at all times, and that BOMEX is simply raising questions about how carefully Fisher kept records. "It is a documentation issue," he says.
After hearing from the investigator at the September meeting, BOMEX voted to proceed with a formal complaint against Fisher, which could result in suspension or revocation of his license to practice medicine after a hearing before an administrative law judge. The complaint has not yet been drafted, according to Donna Nemer, BOMEX's ombudsman. Once the complaint is drafted, a hearing must be held within 120 days, and once the judge has made his findings, the board can then choose to accept or reject them.
There have been other sightings of the other Fisher. Three other former patients of Fisher's spoke to New Times, but didn't complain to BOMEX. They echoed the type of complaints BOMEX's investigator found, and they were not limited to gay men.
Chris Kohler, a straight man and a former construction worker now on disability, says Fisher never molested him, but did make inappropriate comments. Kohler, who is HIV-positive, found another doctor.
"He was the only doctor I know where you'd go in with a sore throat and he'd check your balls," Kohler says. He began seeing Fisher in 1986, and while he praises the doctor's skill, he says he simply became too uncomfortable with Fisher's innuendoes.
"I've accepted gay people," Kohler says. "Being infected when I was, in the '80s, you have to, because back then everybody thought this was only a gay disease. . . . But he's trying to pick me up when I'm trying to get medical attention."
The real Ken Fisher isn't reflected in the accusations against him, according to his defenders. And they say he will fight to prove it.
Calvin Raup, Fisher's attorney, says Fisher is "a good man . . . who has been very badly served" by the accusations against him.
Raup says that the months of the investigation and the shadow it has drawn over Fisher's practice have taken a heavy, personal toll on Fisher.
About March of last year, Fisher took time out from his practice to attend two different psychological evaluation and treatment programs, Raup says. He left Phoenix for a period of several months for the therapy.
Fisher also filed for personal and corporate bankruptcy last year; Raup says the financial troubles stem from Fisher's extended absence from the practice. However, Fisher continues to treat patients, though he does not keep the same workaholic schedule he once did.
"He is doing all this stuff when it would be far simpler to just walk away," Raup says. "He could fold his corporation, he could allow the bankruptcy court to eliminate all the obligations that he has, but he's chosen to stay in there and fight. He's trying to . . . continue to minister to the HIV-positive population, and he's got this crap he's got to deal with."
Raup attributes the accusations against Fisher to professional jealousy and revenge by some patients.
"There are people out there who are contacting his patients, who are making up stories, spreading rumors and trying to take that patient population away from him so they can have it for themselves," Raup says. "That's the kind of world we live in, unfortunately."
Raup also says that some of Fisher's former patients are mad at him because he didn't return their sexual advances.
Raup refers to a letter he received from one of Fisher's supporters, which describes "the mindset" of a terminally ill AIDS patient.
"He uses a phrase in the letter, and I have to quote, this is not a phrase that I would use, 'Hell hath no fury like a fag scorned,'" Raup says. "His message there is if a patient comes on to Dr. Fisher, and he doesn't accept their offer, whatever it may be, then they're angry.
"I can't say that that's the explanation for everything, but if you put yourself into the mindset of a gay male, rejected by his society, a gay male who is HIV-positive, who knows he's going to die, really there are very few consequences for making up a story that's not true, for exaggerating a story that has a factual basis, or for simply going for the brass ring while you've got a few days left."
Fisher is now learning that lines must be drawn in his practice that would not be necessary "in a different culture," Raup says.
But what Raup says is the worst part of the ongoing BOMEX investigation is that the man he sees as the real Ken Fisher--and the work he's done--has gotten "lost in the shuffle."
"Ken Fisher's a special guy," Raup says. "My wife and I had a friend who died almost four years ago, and because he was HIV-positive, no one wanted to treat him. . . . Everybody's afraid of AIDS, and everybody's afraid of those people. Ken Fisher's not afraid of those people; he takes care of them. . . . He can't take a vacation, he can't take a break, because no one will cover his patients. . . . If he didn't care for them, there would be thousands of people in this state who would go without medical care."
There are patients of Fisher's who still stand by him as well.
Bob, a flight attendant and a patient of Fisher's since 1986, describes the doctor as a "humble and professional man."
Bob says he's never been more comfortable with any other doctor.
"With me, he sits down and he goes over all the medications that I'm taking, tells me what kind of treatment we can do if this doesn't work. He doesn't make promises to people he can't keep, but he tries to keep you up. I think he's a wonderful man," Bob says.
He recalls going through a spinal tap--a painful and invasive diagnostic test--and having Fisher at his side through the whole ordeal.
Chaperones have also been present at each examination, Bob says.
"He acts like nothing is going on," Bob says. "When I'm in a room with him, he acts like nothing has ever happened. And I know he's gone through a lot of hell. . . . I really do admire him. He doesn't treat you like a slab of meat; he treats you like you're a person."
The controversy over Fisher has divided Phoenix's gay community, with lines being drawn between the two different versions of events surrounding Fisher.
HeatStroke, a newspaper serving the gay community, broke the story of the BOMEX investigation and has followed it. But the coverage has cost the fledgling paper some support.
One of the distributors, Unique on Central, a gift store, banned the paper from its premises, and letters to the editor in the paper and in Echo have attacked Fisher's accusers.
Doug Klinge, the owner of Unique on Central, declined to comment for this article, but in a letter to the editors of HeatStroke, he explained his decision.
"I find it disgusting and confusing that a paper with intention to inform the community would talk such noninvestigated reporting," he wrote. "This business matter should have been kept confidential about Dr. Fisher until the facts were in and the case was closed."
Kelly Reidhead, HeatStroke's managing editor and the reporter who's written the Fisher articles, admits it was a risky move to cover the inquiry.
"I think the gay community is still at the place where any criticism is seen as a betrayal, and that's unfortunate," Reidhead says.
Reidhead says his articles--which are, for the most part, flat news pieces about BOMEX's actions--aren't meant to malign Fisher, but simply air the issue.
"You never mature as a community unless you can criticize yourself," Reidhead says.
Others see the articles about the charges--as well as the charges themselves--as an attempt to destroy a good doctor and his patients.
"Why didn't anyone who felt uncomfortable or abused confront Dr. Fisher immediately and then seek out a new doctor? Why are they so self-centered not to realize all the other people they would hurt by these allegations?" one person wrote in a letter to the editor in Echo. "I had no doctor to treat my HIV and other problems for far too many months this year already."
Jeff Ofstedahl, Echo's editor, doesn't disagree with HeatStroke's decision to cover the story. He wrote an editorial condemning the censorship of the store which banned the paper. But Echo has also run only one article on the actual charges--a column featuring an interview with Fisher after the story first appeared in HeatStroke. The column contains few specifics, and presents Fisher's only public response to the investigation.
Ofstedahl says he wants Fisher to keep practicing medicine. He says that if Fisher has crossed the line, there will have to be consequences, but he doesn't think his license should be revoked.
"Dr. Fisher has given an awful lot to this community. He's given his life and his work to this damned disease," Ofstedahl says. "I would hate to see all of the dedication get lost in all of this. We could still honor the commitment that this man has made to the community . . . without losing sight of other things."
Others agree. Arcelious Stephens, a board member of the Arizona AIDS project, says losing Fisher would be a "significant loss to the HIV/AIDS community.
"He doesn't need the negative publicity, and the community doesn't need the negative publicity," Stephens says. "I hope he can get this behind him and get his issues settled, because we need physicians to deal with this epidemic."
Fisher's accusers don't question his skill or his long history of serving AIDS patients. But Tory Mastrapasqua doesn't think Fisher should still be practicing.
"I think as a patient you just hand over your trust, and it absolutely doesn't deserve to be violated in any way," he says.
Another of Fisher's accusers puts it this way: "He's a doctor that needs to be in recovery, rather than practicing."
The public debate about Fisher is drawn in black-and-white lines, and reality, unfortunately, is never that simple. There is never just one side to any person. As Jeff Ofstedahl says, "In my opinion, he is a hero in our community, yes. But he's also a human being."
In the end, it's up to BOMEX to reconcile the hero and the human. And Ken Fisher is the only one who can answer for himself.
In his interview with Echo, Fisher says that he had a compulsion to work, and that his anger "got out of control." But he says he has been learning, through therapy, "to live my life in a healthy way."
Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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