By Michael E. Miller
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Linda McCalister is a nurse at an elementary school in Coconut Creek. Most mornings, the 57-year-old throws on a school-issued navy polo shirt before leaving home to care for other people's children. She paints black lines around her big blue eyes, combs her blond bob into place, and tries to shake those unsettling dreams — the ones where her eldest son tells her he wants to come home. In those dreams, sometimes he's a boy and sometimes he's a teenager. But he's never there when she wakes.
That son, Scott Roth, got addicted to pain pills after hurting his neck in a 2001 car accident. The pills made him sloppy and irritable. He'd nod off in the middle of a conversation, and his accounting class at Broward Community College was a blur. McCalister tried to locate the doctor to say "Stop giving him those pills!" She flushed all the little tablets that she could find. But Scott always got more. After a year of fighting with her son, McCalister couldn't stand to watch him deteriorate any further. So she kicked him out. The last thing she said to him was Why don't you die already?
A few days later, he did. An autopsy showed the painkiller oxycodone, the sedative alprazolam, and the muscle relaxer carisoprodol in his 27-year-old body. It was an overdose. An osteopath named Arthur Henson wrote the prescriptions from a clinic in Hollywood.
From that moment, Linda McCalister made it her mission to destroy Dr. Henson. Maybe she could spare another family from this grief. Maybe it would make her feel better. McCalister got liftoff in 2003, when she was invited to testify at a drug-abuse summit in Tallahassee. The summit was hosted by Gov. Jeb Bush, whose daughter Noelle was then in rehab after an arrest for trying to buy Xanax (generic-name alprazolam) with a forged prescription. McCalister brought a large portrait of Scott, frame and all, that was snapped before he was old enough to buy a beer. He looks clean-cut and jovial in a Navy dress uniform. With Scott's portrait by her side, McCalister publicly accused Henson of "irresponsible" prescription-writing for doling out liberal amounts of pills to her son.
When state health officials investigated a few months later, they discovered that Henson gave Scott Roth more than 3,500 doses of opioids, downers, and other drugs in the year before the young man's death. In mid-2003, they barred Henson from writing prescriptions for controlled substances. Then, in November of last year, the Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine revoked his license at its quarterly meeting. This February 18, after many delays, Henson is scheduled to stand trial before Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner on six felony counts of unlawful prescription-writing.
Before Linda McCalister called the doctor out in Tallahassee, Henson had already raised the hackles of Medicaid-fraud investigator Carol Freburger. Working for the Florida Office of the Attorney General, Freburger first came across Henson while looking into a Miami clinic called Latin Quarter. The clinic purportedly lured HIV-positive patients eligible for Medicaid and offered them $600 a month in cash for their antiviral meds. The clinic would then resell the monthly doses, which had cost Medicaid $5,000 per patient. According to Freburger, Henson was the sole physician at the clinic, and he lost his Medicaid provider number because of the drug scam. The clinic was charged with fraud and shut down in 2001.
Freburger stumbled onto another Henson scheme while investigating a welfare mom caught forging prescriptions for OxyContin (generic-name oxycodone). The unidentified woman had visited Henson at the Southeastern Wellness Institute in Hollywood on 26 occasions. Each time, she paid the clinic $150 in cash and, combined, received more than $5,600 worth of Oxy, Xanax, Soma, and hydrocodone — all paid for by Medicaid.
Freburger decided that Henson deserved an investigation of his own. During the first three months of 2003, she got sworn statements from six Medicaid patients who made a visit to Henson sound like a trip to an ice cream shop. Customers would select their own flavors and quantities, according to the statements, but instead of ordering a scoop of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry with sprinkles on top, they might request 90 tablets of Vicodin with a few dozen 80-mg Oxys and some Xanax on the side.
Some patients, like Debra Duggan, blamed Henson for their drug problems. "Dr. Henson is responsible for my addiction to OxyContin. I am lucky to be alive," Duggan wrote in her statement. "My body has shut down and doesn't know how to live without the OxyContins."
Joseph Torres, a below-the-knee amputee, said he was never warned that Oxy could be addictive. He was in pain. He wanted relief. He met Henson. Torres eventually checked into a six-day detox program at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Robin Brown, who has an artificial bladder and lives in constant pain, told Freburger that Henson's office was smelly and full of drug addicts who dozed in the waiting room. Henson, she said, dressed like a slouch and didn't seem to care much about what went on in the clinic. "I got the impression he was like a puppet, that they were just working it," she said in her statement. But she also remembers Henson cutting off a patient named Rhonda who appeared to be abusing her meds. Brown alleges that the owner of Southeastern Wellness Institute, Mentora Eubanks, who isn't a doctor, hooked Rhonda up with pills behind Henson's back. Rhonda, she said, died of an overdose.
When Freburger knocked on Sharon Gaffalione's door, Freburger said, Gaffalione's father begged the investigator to "get the doctor that keeps giving her drugs." He said his daughter was completely out of control, having recently been found by police crawling naked in the street. Sharon Gaffalione said that Southeastern Wellness Institute introduced her to OxyContin after she walked in complaining of neck pain. "Being addicted to it [Oxy] is worse than being addicted to heroin. It really is. Your body aches. You barf," she told Freburger.
Within months, Gaffalione was an Oxy pro. "See, I used the doctor just as much as he used me. I give him the money. I get what I needed," she explained. She learned how to suck the green time-release coating off tablets so that she could crush them and then either snort or shoot up the narcotic. She exhausted the veins in her arms and began injecting herself in the butt. When Henson spied her track marks, she said, "he wasn't thrilled with it." She confessed that she was addicted and that she needed help. Henson reacted, she said, by giving her methadone and more OxyContin. Gaffalione eventually went through detox. "Part of me really does like Dr. Henson," she said. "He was sweet, he was kind, but I also — I almost died."
Will any of those patients testify? Kevin Kulik, Henson's attorney, doesn't think so. Years have passed since they gave statements to Freburger, and Kulik says not a single one has responded to his subpoenas to appear for a deposition. "They're gone," he said. "They're off to either new pill doctors or deceased or not interested in being a witness in a case. People like that avoid the court system."
Linda McCalister would like to testify. She says she gave Arthur Henson an earful the last time she saw him, just before a hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in 2006. He was sitting alone on a bench, wearing a sharp suit, his white hair pulled into a ponytail, she recalls. She remembers approaching him like a long-lost friend, clutching a photograph of her son. "You killed him," she said, pointing at the image of Scott. "He killed him," she says Henson responded before walking away. McCalister says she lost it. "Murderer! Murderer!" she shouted after him.
Kulik paints the upcoming trial as a vendetta against pain doctors. People die, he says. Their loved ones feel guilty. They need a scapegoat. Meanwhile, Arthur Henson is 75 years old and unable to work as a doctor. And what about the folks with honest-to-God chronic pain? Kulik asks, the kind of agony that shoots through your back 24/7, that no operation can mend? "If you're a doctor and you've trained to help people, and you've sworn an oath to do that, you can't just kick 'em out on the street because you feel like it or because you think you might get in trouble."
Still, they're called "controlled substances" because there are established procedures and rules for prescribing them. While building a case for the Florida Department of Health, Assistant General Counsel Blake Hunter says he noticed that Henson had an appallingly small stack of notes on his patients. (Unless Henson appeals to the board to get his license back, Hunter says his case against him is closed.) And there are plenty of other pain doctors who aren't dotting their i's and crossing their t's, he says, in a growing but dicey line of work.
"You have to be extra-vigilant if you suspect that a patient is abusing drugs," Hunter warns.
Taking Henson's livelihood isn't enough for Linda McCalister. She plans to be at the courthouse again on February 18, with a picture of her son, because she wants to see the doctor thrown in jail.