By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The incident was so bizarre it could have been a macabre April Fool Day's prank. Shortly before dawn on April 1, 1998, Marie Bellabe, dressed in a bloody hospital gown, staggered down a Fort Lauderdale sidewalk. She wheeled along a urinary catheter and an oxygen tank, both connected to her body. A passing cab driver noticed her and informed the police. By the time a Fort Lauderdale squad car pulled up beside her, she had collapsed.
A day earlier 31-year-old Bellabe had checked into the American Institute of Plastic Surgery at 4875 N. Federal Hwy. A doctor named Jerry Clifton Lingle had suctioned fat from her stomach. Left unattended during the night, Bellabe managed to wander out of the fifth-floor clinic in a drug-induced stupor. "I do not know how I got out of there," Bellabe now marvels. "The Lord was my only help. I remember calling to him: "What about my two kids? I can't die here.'" Bellabe was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital that night, where she remained in a coma for two days.
Now, three years and a bevy of malpractice suits and complaints later, the Florida Board of Medicine has finally pulled the plug on Lingle. But while the 64-year-old surgeon's practice apparently ended with the license revocation April 1, the glacial pace of the board's response is disturbing. Though patients of Lingle's filed 12 lawsuits and 13 complaints with the medical board during a five-year period beginning in 1996, his license was suspended for only six months during that time. Indeed the final revocation was based on a botched plastic surgery from way back in June 1995.
Florida is a mecca for cosmetic surgery, attracting not only talented surgeons but also low-rent doctors hoping to cash in on quickie operations and high volume. With slightly more than a half-million procedures performed in the state last year, Florida ranked second only to California. But the makeover craze has had its downside. A 1998 Sun-Sentinelinvestigation found that 1100 patients statewide had been injured by plastic surgeons from 1980 through 1998. Lingle warranted a brief bio in that series as one of the worst hacks in the state.
Lingle is unwilling to talk about his past. By phone from his Fort Lauderdale home, he says, "I'm not interested in participating in this. If you have a story you want to write, then write it." Although the Florida Department of Health was unable to supply much detail about Lingle's past, its files make clear the fact that his record was sullied well before 1994, when he moved to the state. Lingle graduated from the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine in 1969, then practiced in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. He applied for a medical license in Florida in January 1994 and began practicing in Fort Lauderdale that June.
But Lingle did not reveal all on his license application. Last year the state health department filed a complaint with administrative law judge Robert Meale in Fort Lauderdale alleging the doctor had lied about his past. Although his application indicated he had never appeared before a licensing agency because of complaints, he'd actually been summoned by the Kentucky State Board of Medical Licensure in May 1987 after one of his patients died during nose surgery. (The board did not discipline him, however.) He also inaccurately stated he had never been convicted of a misdemeanor, the health department claims. In fact, in October 1988 Lingle was found guilty in Pennsylvania of failure to remit sales tax, fined $1000, and sentenced to six months' probation. Only this past April did the Florida Department of Health discipline Lingle for these fabrications, ordering him to pay a $250 fine and complete three hours of ethics classes.
Lingle began bungling surgeries soon after he hung his shingle in Fort Lauderdale, according to court and health-department records. Richard Dion was among the first to complain. Beginning a five-year saga of pain and frustration on September 17, 1996, the then-39-year-old Dion went under Lingle's knife. He hoped to increase the size of his chest, but his pectoral implants were painful and too big, according to Dion's handwritten complaint in an April 1997 civil suit. They also started shifting toward his armpits. After Dion complained, Lingle removed the implants in November. Lingle inserted another pair a month later, and Dion soon discovered that one was larger than the other. A few days before he was scheduled for more surgery, Dion was notified by Lingle's office that he would be charged $500 for anesthesia. Dion balked at the request, then called Lingle to ask for his medical records. Lingle refused to supply them.
Dion proved to be a dogged litigator, persisting through two years of stalling by Lingle, who represented himself in the case. When Lingle and his wife, Anne-Marie, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy early in 1999, Dion opposed the move. The Lingles dropped their bankruptcy bid later that year.
After a five-day trial in November 1999, a jury awarded Dion $100,000 in compensatory and $300,000 in punitive damages. (In his closing statement, Lingle used a bizarre metaphor to make his point, according to court documents: "[I] was a punter who kicked the football between the uprights, but the football later sued [me], claiming that [I] kicked the football too hard, bruising it and making it burst open at the seams.") The court ordered Lingle to pay $350,000. When Lingle refused to ante up, Dion's attorney, David L. Kahn, notified the state health department in December. The medical board suspended Lingle's license in June 2000. (Meanwhile an appeals court ordered a new trial in Dion's case. Dion has not determined whether to pursue the matter.)