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-Sentinel investigation 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.)
Other Lingle patients have also been frustrated. On November 18, 1996, Lingle performed breast-reduction surgery on Angela Francis of Sunrise. According to court documents, an untrained, unlicensed scrub technician sutured Francis's right breast, damaging tissue and nerves. Although the breast was very dark and swollen after surgery, Lingle delayed treatment for three days. Francis and her husband, Orville, sued Lingle, and a jury awarded them $420,000 in February of this year. They've not seen a cent. Lingle flouted the law by neither carrying malpractice insurance nor holding a $250,000 escrow fund for future damage awards.
Steven P. Befera, a Coral Gables attorney who represents the Francises, is moving to garnish Lingle's wages and discover other assets the doctor may have hidden. "[Lingle] advised me that he was doing management for a medical office, as opposed to actually practicing medicine," Befera recalls, "although he was not specific about which company he was working with."
Lingle was disciplined by the state medical board in September 1998 after it reached a settlement with the doctor in which he neither admitted nor denied guilt. The result: a paltry six-month license suspension and a $10,000 fine. The settlement refers to Marie Bellabe's liposuction, alleging Lingle had not performed standard tests such as an EKG or taken her blood pressure before the surgery. Bellabe filed suit against Lingle in Broward County in 1999, but her lawyer, W. George Allen, quit the case last year when it appeared Lingle's well was dry. The case was dismissed. "It's worth pursuing, but how do you get an attorney when there's no money?" Bellabe wonders.
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Another case concerned Lingle's September 1996 removal of fatty tissue from the neck and abdomen of a 59-year-old man. After seven hours of surgery, the patient couldn't walk without assistance, but Lingle sent him home anyway; the man's veins and prostate gland suffered damage. (The settlement agreement does not include names. New Times identified Bellabe through court files.) Yet another of the purportedly botched surgeries took place in 1995, when a 47-year-old woman was disfigured after liposuction on her thighs.
Lingle's license revocation this April was based on the disfigurement of a 48-year-old patient in 1995. According to medical board documents, in June of that year Lingle performed a brow lift, nose job, and facelift on the woman. However, Lingle did not give her a physical examination prior to surgery or instructions regarding the care of bandages that covered much of her face. The surgery left her with eyes of different sizes, a droopy eyebrow, and loose skin on the right side of her face. She also had excessive scarring and a misshapen right nostril. Lingle promised follow-up surgery to correct the problems, but then insisted she pay $300 more. In 1998 she went to another plastic surgeon, who repaired the nostril. She did not, however, have the $4000 necessary to repair other distortion.
In December 2000 Judge Meale recommended revocation of Lingle's license given his "extensive deviations from the applicable standard of care and his unwillingness to correct the damage." The medical board took action in April -- seven years after the first reports that Lingle had endangered patients.
Apparently the surgeon's bungling is Florida's little secret. Dr. Jerry Clifton Lingle is still certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery.