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Doctor Suspended for Deception

Teresita_Garrido_with_a_grandchild.jpg
Family of Teresita Garrido

A Miami physician who mishandled a case and then altered the medical records to cover it up has  been given a second chance by the Florida Board of Medicine.

The board, which met in Tampa on Friday, revoked the license of Dr. Peter V. Choy, but minutes later  reconsidered and voted to reinstate the license, instead suspending it for six months.  A do-over on a revocation case is so rare that several longtime observers said they could not recall ever seeing one before.

It is not entirely clear why the board had a sudden change of heart, although several mentioned that Choy had not been charged with anything similar in the past.  The physician also expressed contrition.

“I’m very ashamed of myself,” Choy said. “I ask you for clemency; I ask you not to take my license.”

The physician said he “made a mistake” in changing the records. “This has been the lesson of a lifetime,” Choy said. “I promise I will never do it again.”

The board’s change of vote was a blow to the son of the patient in question, Teresita Garrido, who died in 2010 when she was a patient of Choy's.  Jacinto Garrido is the one who filed the complaint and kept his eye on it during the Department of Health 's three-year investigation and prosecution.

Had Choy known there was a duplicate copy of the records, he might have succeeded in the cover-up,  Jacinto Garrido said. “How many more patients did he do this to but it was never uncovered?”

A Tallahassee hearing officer who considered evidence in the case in January, John Van Laningham, determined that Choy tampered with the medical records after getting a phone call from an attorney representing the family.  Choy gave the doctored records to the attorney, and later to the DOH, Van Laningham wrote.

The falsification indicates Choy’s guilt “by clear and convincing evidence,” he wrote in his recommended order on April 15.  In it, Van Laningham recommended Choy’s license be revoked.

And that is what the board did by a 5-to-4 vote late Friday afternoon. But a few minutes later, Dr. Zach Zachariah, who had voted in the majority, asked for a reconsideration. This time, the board opted to suspend Choy’s license, and depending on a review of his riskiness by independent assessors, allow Choy to practice on probation for five years, with another physician monitoring his records. He was also fined $35,000.

DOH records give this background: Teresita Garrido, 77, a longtime patient of Choy’s, complained to him in May 2008 of abdominal pain.  He sent her for a CT scan in June; the report, which was faxed to Choy’s office, said the scan showed “a large malignant tumor mass” in her pancreas.

Choy either didn’t notice the part about the tumor or somehow forgot what it said because there is nothing about it in Garrido’s original medical records and he did not tell her about it, according to Van Laningham’s findings of fact in the case.

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Credit Family of Teresita Garrido
Teresita Garrido's son, far left, filed a complaint to the Florida Board of Medicine following his mother's death.

The patient continued to complain of abdominal pain from time to time, the hearing officer’s report says, but she didn’t learn of the tumor or get treatment for it until she became so weak that her son took her to Mercy Hospital on July 19, 2010. By then the tumor had metastasized to the liver. She died Aug. 6, 2010.

Soon after, Choy got a letter from an attorney representing the Garrido family requesting the medical records.  Choy, who had no malpractice insurance coverage, “panicked” and altered them, according to the hearing officer.

Meanwhile, the family's lawyer said it wasn't financially feasible to sue Choy. Under Florida law, it is virtually impossible to win any damages in a malpractice case involving the death of an unmarried adult who has no minor children or other dependents.

Their only recourse, she told them, was to file a complaint with DOH. That is what happened.

Last week, Jacinto Garrido made the trip from Miami to Tampa to “seek health care justice,” as he put it.
In a brief address to the board, he called Choy “Machiavellian” in his attempts to twist the facts of the case and said it is too dangerous to ever let him return to practice. “We know past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior,” he said.

One of Choy’s attorneys, Amy Schrader of Tallahassee, countered that the outcome for Teresita Garrido probably would not have been any better if Choy had told her about the malignancy in 2008 and she had begun treatment. Given how deadly pancreatic cancer tends to be, Schrader said, Teresita Garrido’s two-year survival “is a reasonable outcome for that condition.”