Internet fen-phen doctor given 45-month prison sentence

To Hitzig, patients were `guinea pigs,' judge says

November 10, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Pietr Hitzig, who sought fame prescribing the drug fen-phen over the Internet, was sentenced yesterday in federal court in Baltimore to 45 months in prison after a hearing that focused on his ego-driven style and the toll exacted by his experimental approach to medicine.

Hitzig, 60, showed no emotion as U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz pronounced sentence, but broke down and cried moments later when a deputy marshal led him out of the nearly empty courtroom in handcuffs.

"I can't tell you how much I hate this," Hitzig told his lawyers.

Motz said that Hitzig abused his position of trust as a physician, ignored medical standards and caused severe injuries by prescribing fen-phen to thousands of patients throughout the country during the mid-1990s.

Motz added that Hitzig used his patients to test his theories about fen-phen.

"Out of arrogance, he turned human beings into guinea pigs - that's essentially what happened in this case," Motz said.

Hitzig, who surrendered his medical license in 1999, was convicted in June of 33 counts of illegally prescribing medicine, in many cases to patients he treated over the Internet and telephone.

Fen-phen was widely prescribed for weight loss before the drug combination was taken off the market in 1997. But Hitzig used it to treat ailments from alcoholism and drug addiction to personality disorders.

Dr. Richard Ratner, a defense psychiatrist, said that Hitzig was so ego-driven that he had a difficult time questioning his own conclusions about fen-phen.

"I think his problem was born out of the conviction that he had all the answers," Ratner said.

But Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christine Manuelian and Donna C. Sanger argued that Hitzig has shown no remorse and continues to believe in the benefits of fen-phen.

Prosecutors brought two police officers to court to testify about one of Hitzig's patients, who committed suicide in 1997 - at Hitzig's Monkton home.

"What a statement that is, to blow your brains out on your doctor's driveway," Manuelian said.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said afterward the case shows that his office will prosecute physicians who conduct unauthorized experiments on patients.

"Every now and then, a case comes along that reminds us of why we come in and do this job every day," DiBiagio said. "This is one of those cases."

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