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.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson