Cut & Run

He made millions sculpting the figures of Houston women while dodging one of the largest malpractice judgments in Texas history. But after botching another surgery, can Dr. Gerald Johnson continue to operate?

Excited by that promise, Charlotte scheduled her surgery for the early morning of July 12, 1994. As the day drew near, Charlotte felt good about things, and she expected that optimism to grow once Johnson had shaped her breasts into more manageable proportions. She wasn't getting a nose job or breast implants or having the fat sucked off her thighs. All the same, Charlotte understood the magnetic lure of those purely cosmetic procedures. In them lay the power to change the way a woman feels about herself, to allow her to be something she had never been, something more. Charlotte couldn't help but feel a surge of life-changing energy. As a 37-year-old single mother of two who drove a school bus for a living, it was not an unwelcome sensation.

There have been moments in the nearly two years since the operation when she's wished differently, but Charlotte survived her bilateral endoscopic reduction mammoplasty. She lost quite a bit of blood, and large pieces of skin died and had to be removed following the surgery. Her breasts are, in fact, smaller. But any relief brought by the reduction is trumped by a searing pain that starts deep in her chest and burns a path through her breasts to the surface, which is a morass of grotesque scars. Her right breast is noticeably smaller than the left one; both nipples have been cruelly repositioned.

As for the power of cosmetic surgery, the reconstructive procedure that would somehow transform Charlotte's torso into something to be admired does not yet exist. Then again, before Gerald Johnson prepared to work on her, it appears that few people besides Johnson had ever heard of a bilateral endoscopic reduction mammoplasty.

According to those who know him, it's unlikely Gerald Johnson thought twice before performing a radical procedure of his own creation on a paying customer. And he would have never expected it to fail. But now, as a result of Charlotte's surgery, Johnson faces a career-threatening malpractice suit in Harris County's 55th District Court.

For more than 20 years, Gerald Wayne Johnson has fought for respectability in a field of surgery where it's not often granted. Most cosmetic surgery is incidental to the health and well-being of a patient. Only in its purest form -- as a means to remedy a disfigurement or severe physical trauma -- is it considered a justifiable medical undertaking by those professionals who deal in life and death. Early in his career, Johnson was a trauma surgeon working in an emergency unit under Michael DeBakey. The before-and-after photographs of his patients -- among them, a young girl who had the lower half of her face almost completely torn off by a dog -- are almost awe-inspiring. Indeed, nurses who've worked for Johnson use words such as "brilliant" to describe his technique. As a cosmetic surgeon, Johnson most recently pioneered an umbilical breast augmentation procedure that is gaining credibility in the industry.

For all of his wealth and skill, however, Johnson's life has been a torturous affair. On June 4, 1979, ten-year-old Jill Newsome went into cardiac arrest while the surgeon was removing a birthmark from her right knee. Jill was resuscitated, but not before she lapsed into a coma and suffered severe brain damage. She died in 1984, two years after a jury slapped Johnson -- who had no malpractice insurance at the time -- with an $11.3 million judgment.

Johnson never appealed the judgment, one of the largest ever levied against a Texas physician. But he's never accepted it, either. Indeed, the surgeon has made no secret of his disgust with the verdict, as well as his intent to do whatever it takes to avoid paying the consequences. Since 1982, Johnson has worn a path between his operating theater and the courtroom, self-righteously fighting the justice administered on behalf of Jill's parents, Earl and Gail Newsome. The couple and their attorney, Bobbie Bayless, have reminded Johnson at every turn that Jill's death is his cross to bear, and a good-faith effort to make restitution is the only way to ease the burden.

According to Bayless, Johnson has paid between $1 million and $2 million of the judgment, which, with accrued interest, has grown to more than $30 million. To avoid turning over more of his assets, the doctor has taken most every twist and turn in the book, and the Newsomes have never been far behind him. But the couple's 14-year pursuit has mostly brought them more grief, while pulling them into the strange orbit of a man who makes more than $1 million a year yet has exhibited a fanatical unwillingness to part with it. Perhaps it's bad karma, but Johnson's financial gyrations and frequently bizarre behavior have created more trouble for him than the tragic accident would have ever caused on its own.

The wild ride began three months after the Newsome trial, when Johnson filed for personal bankruptcy in an attempt to have the judgment discharged. A federal judge dismissed the claim in November 1985, ruling that Johnson had stashed millions of dollars in assets "with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors," specifically the Newsomes. A few months before the bankruptcy was dismissed, Johnson managed to enlist the unwitting assistance of a fellow physician by asking Dr. Michael Kelly, who trained as a resident with Johnson, to join his practice -- the first time Johnson ever had, or had wanted, a partner.

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