Patients And Colleagues Rally To Doctor's Defense
By Nancy Hyden Woodward
Yesterday, Dr. Joseph Burrascano attended the third in a series of hearings before the Office of Professional Medical Conduct which oversees medical licenses in New York State. He has been charged with medical negligence for allegedly oversubscribing antibiotics to Lyme Disease patients. Last Thursday afternoon, an estimated 700 Lyme Disease sufferers from across the country converged on Manhattan to show their support for the man whom they call their medical savior and whom many others consider the leading authority on long-term treatment of Lyme Disease. Standing in Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue, they heard several Burrascano patients recount their lives before he came into them, representatives of two national Lyme organizations giving their unqualified support, and a series of statements read or spoken by doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Steps away, inside the Plaza Hotel, reporters interviewed six patients whose medical files were lifted from Dr. Burrascano's office without their permission. Two longtime LD sufferers planned the rally from bed in their respective homes. Diane Leary, the event's emcee and a Burrascano patient who lives in Babylon, spent last weekend in bed. "It was worth the effort," she said yesterday. "Without Dr. Burrascano, I wouldn't be here today."
Leary's statement echoes those that have been made by countless Burrascano patients around the world. They credit the East Hampton specialist with saving their lives and restoring day-to-day function to almost normal. Some of their testaments can be read on the Internet. Just type in Dr. Burrascano's last name and click the search button. In separate interviews with The Independent, Lisa Brown of East Hampton and Leary recounted similar stories: years of misdiagnosis, intense everyday suffering from blinding headaches, crippling muscular/skeletal pain, nausea, vertigo, and long, long periods confined to bed. Leary called LD a "lonely disease. Everyone else goes out and you stay home in bed, barely able to move, unable to get up alone." "I would not be alive today were it not for Dr. Burrascano," Brown told The Independent. "He saved my life." The OPMC remains unimpressed by the many letters of support for Dr. Burrascano. Although all the letters that were directed specifically to Gov. George Pataki remain unanswered, OPMC did respond to one from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. Those who have seen a copy of the OPMC letter called it the ultimate insult to Dr. Burrascano. In so many words, it indicated that the investigating office was ignoring the many letters received because it follows the American Lyme Disease Foundation protocol. The ALDF and its legion of supporters, including Boston's Dr. Allen Steere, who identified the disease in 1975, adhere to a treatment regimen of two to four-weeks' worth of antibiotics. They claim that treatment beyond that period is overkill, damaging to the immune system, and no more conducive than catering to malingerers. "In other words," Dr. Burrascano wrote in a "Lyme Update 2000," "the reality and truth of Lyme, supported by valid, peer-reviewed publications and our experience with thousands of patients, counts for nothing."
Threat of Investigation
Dr. Burrascano is not the first doctor to suffer OPMC scrutiny for their long-term treatment of LD patients. Representing several doctors, an attorney who spoke at the rally said that treating LD patients almost guarantees an investigation will follow. The threat of investigation and the high financial cost that a defense will incur weighs heavily on doctors with LD patients. Common belief states that the fear will lead doctors to stop treating LD patients or refuse to prescribe medicine beyond the alleged normal cutoff date. "This is a threat to our own lives," Brown said. "Without my treatment, I will be bedridden and in indescribable pain again. I can't live that way." Assemblyman Fred Thiele did not fare much better than Dr. Burrascano supporters did in their letter-writing campaign to the Governor. A letter he wrote to the Governor last March went unanswered for two months, then came a response from the Department of Health underscoring the need to investigate all complaints. A second letter, written October 12, in which Thiele pointed out the numbers of patients who come to Dr. Burrascano from around the globe, brought a quicker response from the Health Department. In his October 31 letter which found its way to Thiele's Bridgehampton office yesterday, Wayne Osten, director of the Office of Health Systems Management, sounded a note that could be interpreted as a possible step backward from OPMC's aggressive investigation to date. Osten noted that the department "clearly recognizes" that equally qualified experts may render dissenting opinions on the same set of facts. In the case of LD specifically, Osten admitted that different schools of thought exist on long-term antibiotic treatment of chronic LD. Osten wrote that the process provides for the physician under investigation to present expert medical testimony for consideration by the board, and that the hearing committee is under no obligation to take disciplinary action simply because a case was brought forward. He said that while his department does not have specific guidelines for the treatment of LD, it refers medical providers to peer-reviewed guidelines and scientific literature for information on treatment. The National Institutes of Health is sponsoring clinical studies to understand the cause of continuing symptoms of the disease in some patients and how best to treat them. Seven years ago, Dr. Burrascano testified before Congress on then-current problems in the LD field. Some people are of the opinion that his testimony prompted the investigation. Dr. Burrascano referred to a "Lyme Disease conspiracy" within a core group of university-based researchers and physicians whose opinions carry considerable weight. He questioned their ethics, their use of "outdated, self-serving views," and their publication of articles "that are badly flawed." "This group," he continued, "promotes the idea that Lyme is a simple, rare illness....The truth is that Lyme is the fastest growing infectious illness in this country that often goes undiagnosed for months, years, or forever." Coming fast on the heels of AIDS, insurance companies are said to have been loath to underwrite any more long-term prescriptions. There also are allegations that some doctors were paid to promote short-term LD treatment. The OPMC did not respond to a query. An insurance agent in another state would only say that health insurance "is an individual matter."