A surgeon's trials: 'This is getting scary'

April 03, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

Thirty-five years into a distinguished career as a cancer surgeon, Dr. George Elias was finishing a delicate operation last March when he heard a policeman was looking for him.

Mystified, the doctor later called the police and left a message that he was available. The next day, an officer entered a waiting room brimming with patients and bluntly told Dr. Elias that a 31-year-old woman had accused him of inappropriately touching her pubic area during an exam.

Charged with two misdemeanors -- battery and fourth-degree sexual assault -- Dr. Elias minimized the danger he faced, figuring the case would crumble once he explained that he had done nothing more than examine her groin for signs of cancer.

"At first, we were just disbelieving of it all," said Mary Ellen Elias, his wife of 31 years. "I know my husband didn't do what she said he did. I thought, 'Well, we'll tell what happened, and it will be over.' "

A year later, the Eliases know how wrong they were.

Dr. Elias, chief of cancer surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, stands twice convicted of battery and faces a $4.5 million malpractice suit. Last month, he lost his bid for a retrial after arguing that he had been denied a fair trial by an ineffective lawyer, a biased prosecutor and an intimidating judge.

He spent four months in forced exile from his medical practice, having been told by university authorities not to see a single patient. Desperate for his care, several cancer patients hired a lawyer to negotiate his return.

He faced an investigation by the state licensing board, which has the power to revoke or suspend medical licenses for ethical lapses. Even if the board decides to do nothing, which appears likely, the allegations have cast an ugly shadow over a career that once seemed beyond challenge.

He has spent at least $60,000 and vows to appeal his conviction no matter what the cost. Two weeks ago, his lawyer petitioned the Court of Appeals to hear his case, but the court is under no obligation to do so.

Through it all, Dr. Elias has regarded himself as the victim of an accuser who is seeking a malpractice payday and of a court system bent on dictating how doctors should practice their trade.

'I know my business'

"Since when do the courts tell us how to examine our patients and when?" he said in a recent interview. "They're telling me, professor of surgical oncology, how to do my business. I know my business."

His predicament has sent a chill through the medical community, leading some doctors to view the examining room as a legal minefield.

Like Dr. Elias, many physicians are perplexed by the reasoning of District Judge Askew Gatewood, who told the surgeon that he erred -- criminally -- when he felt the woman's groin for suspicious lumps without asking permission.

"I don't think you have done anything wrong in the case except to be so damn good as to be automatic in your examination," he told Dr. Elias. "I think all you have got to do was to simply say, 'I want to touch this groin area. May I?' And had you done that, we wouldn't have had this difficulty."

Should doctors explain their every move, lest patients read sexual intent into procedures done purely for medical reasons? Should a nurse observe at all times, ready to bear witness?

At a time when the public has become outraged over widely publicized incidents of flagrant sexual misconduct, has abuse become so narrowly defined that every practitioner is in peril?

"Sure, we think doctors should explain to patients what they are doing," said Dr. Israel Weiner, a neurosurgeon who heads the state Board of Physician Quality Assurance.

"But in the Elias case, it sounds like part of a routine examination, nothing out of the ordinary. . . . I think the patient misunderstood," he said.

"People in our community are outraged when a doctor is molesting patients," said Dr. Bruce Bolling, a surgeon at St. Agnes Hospital who trained under Dr. Elias. "We want these guys out of medicine. But you cannot place a guy who is examining groin nodes in that category.

"It looks to me like this is a witch hunt. This could happen to anybody."

'A father figure'

Last month, a 51-year-old breast cancer patient took the stand to support Dr. Elias' request for a new trial. Sexually molested as a child, she said she dismissed four oncologists before she found one who didn't frighten her. That was Dr. Elias, and he has been her doctor for five years.

"From the first moment I was in his presence, I just felt comfortable," she said. "He's like a father figure. He's there for a pat on the back. He's there to raise hell if something's wrong. He's just been a real good doctor."

Contacted by telephone, the patient who filed the charges said testimonials won't change her mind about what happened in the examining room.

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