Troubles dogged "medical liaison'


St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 1997

CLEARWATER - A Church of Scientology staff member who helped care for Lisa McPherson shortly before her death is a medical doctor whose practice in Arizona was restricted after two hospitals raised questions about her use of prescription drugs.

The doctor, Janis K. Johnson-Fitzgerald, agreed to an order in October 1993 in which she surrendered her right to write prescriptions; promised not to see patients; agreed to random drug tests; and was to have her progress monitored by another doctor.

At the time, according to records from the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, Johnson-Fitzgerald was not planning to continue practicing medicine anyway. She cited chronic problems with her back and feet that limited her ability to move from patient to patient. She said she once had taken pain medications to deal with the back and feet problems, but had stopped.

"I don't even take Advil," she told board members.

Still, the board's chairman expressed concern and said Johnson-Fitzgerald risked more severe action if she didn't agree to the terms of the order. Six months after agreeing to have her practice restricted, Johnson-Fitzgerald allowed her Arizona medical license to expire.

Lisa McPherson died in December 1995 after a 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel, a Scientology retreat in downtown Clearwater.

Church lawyers have said that Johnson-Fitzgerald worked in the church's medical liaison office, which, they said, refers Scientology staffers in need of medical care to local doctors.

They have said Johnson-Fitzgerald was called in to see McPherson after McPherson fell ill, and that she was in the church van that took McPherson to a hospital 24 miles away in New Port Richey.

McPherson, who had been a Scientologist for 18 years, was dead on arrival. She had entered the Fort Harrison to recuperate from an emotional upheaval but had no physical problems. Her death at age 36 is still under investigation by state and local authorities.

Johnson-Fitzgerald, 40, is not a licensed physician in Florida. Church of Scientology officials say she was never hired as a physician and was not acting as one while in the medical liaison office.

"She was helping in the care, just like other people were caring for (McPherson) and wanting the best for her," said Leisa Goodman, the church's international spokeswoman. Goodman declined to elaborate.

Brian Anderson, the church's Clearwater spokesman, said Johnson-Fitzgerald joined the church staff in July 1994, well after her experience in Arizona.

He added: "She got her life straightened out and got off drugs because of Scientology."

Anderson said Johnson-Fitzgerald no longer works for the medical liaison office and has since been assigned to other responsibilities. Anderson did not say what her new duties were, but said the change was not related to the McPherson case.

Johnson-Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment.

The Arizona Board of Medical Examiners never determined whether the complaints against Johnson-Fitzgerald were true.

In fact, some board members emphasized that the action was not disciplinary. But board chairman Dr. Nicholas Soldo also said "this board still has some concerns," about allowing Johnson-Fitzgerald to retain her license without the restrictions and drug monitoring.

Later, Johnson-Fitzgerald signed a board order agreeing to the restrictions and monitoring.

According to records, two Tucson, Ariz., hospitals submitted allegations about Johnson-Fitzgerald to the Board of Medical Examiners. The doctor had worked as an anesthesiologist at both hospitals.

One hospital said it modified Johnson-Fitzgerald's privileges based on a suspicion she had been using a prescription pain medication. According to a transcript of a hearing in the case, Johnson-Fitzgerald violated hospital policy in removing a medication from the operating suite. In addition, nurses reported she made frequent trips to the bathroom and kept syringes in her pockets.

The second hospital gave the board similar information about Johnson-Fitzgerald.

According to records, staffers for the medical board said they were "fairly well satisfied" that allegations of substance abuse were without merit, "with the exception that (Johnson-Fitzgerald's) dependence on the pain medication to control her medical problems might have led the hospital to believe that she had a drug problem when that was not the case."

Johnson-Fitzgerald appeared before the board saying she did not plan to practice medicine anymore, but wanted the option to keep her license "on hold" should she need it for future employment. At the time, she said she was exploring the possibility of working for a law firm or an insurance company.

She said she kept syringes in her pockets to save time in situations in which she had to treat large numbers of patients in a short time.

Johnson-Fitzgerald and her attorney asked whether the allegations could be dismissed. But board members said they were concerned.

"We just can't do that," said Soldo, the board chairman.

At a later hearing, board members were informed by staff members that Johnson-Fitzgerald had defied the board order by refusing to undergo a drug test. They also were told she made false statements to the board, saying she had not seen a psychiatrist when a medical record indicated she had.

Because some of the board's records are not available to the public, it was unclear how the case was resolved. The last public record of board action is July 1994, when the board decided to continue its investigation of Johnson-Fitzgerald.

By then, she was a Scientologist living in Clearwater.

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