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?

June's daughter, Elaine Martin, is perhaps a less embittered source. Though she naturally supports her mother, Martin was Johnson's scrub nurse for many years and still speaks in near-reverential tones about his skills. Martin was also the supposed beneficiary of a few of Johnson's asset-reduction moves, which, if true, doesn't really add up. Elaine was earning about $1,200 a month working for Johnson, yet she allegedly managed to pay her stepfather $220,000 for some real estate and pension-fund interests.

But that was a long time ago, and while she still describes Johnson as "brilliant," Martin says he wasn't always medicated as prescribed.

"You could always tell when Gerald wasn't taking his lithium," says Martin. "But even on his worst day, he was always a very good surgeon, technique-wise. Always pushing the envelope. It's half art and half science, and he was really very good."

In a phone interview, June Johnson said her ex-husband was "devastated" when Jill Newsome didn't recover. A registered nurse who worked for her husband, June wasn't on duty the day of Jill's surgery, but she had set up the routine protocol used in the surgery center's operating rooms. Johnson was running late the morning he was scheduled to remove the birthmark from the ten-year-old's knee. Fifteen minutes before the surgeon arrived, his nurse anesthetist, Guy Abbey, began to prepare Jill by administering a combination of sodium pentothal and phenegran, plus brevital to control nausea.

She was taken into the operating room at 9:10 a.m., just after Johnson arrived and scrubbed. The drugs Abbey had given Jill were to keep her calmly asleep long enough for Johnson to inject the area around the birthmark with Marcaine, a local anesthetic. But as Johnson pushed the needle in, the child flinched. Abbey administered more brevital and sodium pentothal.

Johnson was closing the wound, when, after two sutures, he heard a loud whoosh from the flush valve of Abbey's anesthesia machine, a signal that oxygen was rapidly being pumped into Jill's lungs. Johnson looked up and noticed Jill was cyanotic -- she had turned blue. Johnson then glanced over his anesthetist's shoulder at the EEG monitor and saw two blips, then a flat line.

Following the emergency protocol, Johnson ordered a nurse to fetch one of three internists who officed one floor above the operating room. Johnson was still administering cardiac massage when Dr. David O'Neill arrived from upstairs and took control. He picked up the heart massage and ordered a dose of Isuprel. Within a few minutes, Jill's heart was pumping and her blood pressure had stabilized.

But she was comatose, and her brain had gone without oxygen for eight minutes. Johnson accompanied Jill to nearby Houston Northwest Medical Center, where she remained in intensive care for almost a week.

Though he couldn't say what had gone wrong, Johnson continued to assure Earl and Gail Newsome in the days following the operation that Jill would recover. The Newsomes didn't learn otherwise until their daughter was transferred to Texas Children's Hospital. After Jill was admitted, an intern approached the couple, and as Earl put it, "read us the riot act."

"I mean, up one side of my wife and I and down the other about, 'How could you bring this child down here?' " Earl Newsome recalls. "He said, 'Can't you see she's already brain-dead? There is no hope for this child.'

"I have never been as sick in my life as I was that day, because up until that point we had been going along under the hope or the belief that, 'Well, maybe she did have an adverse reaction to the drug; maybe there is a sign.' "

Jill was released from the hospital on June 22, 1979, when the Newsomes learned what had been true since the life-and-death drama in Johnson's operating room. The discharge statement diagnosed her as anoxic encephalopathic, with slow and grossly abnormal brain waves, upper-gaze paralysis, no reflex action and rigidity. In other words, Jill had suffered permanent brain damage.

One thing June and Gerald Johnson agree on today is that the surgeon should not have been held responsible for Jill Newsome's injury. They both insist the problem that morning was the nurse anesthetist, Guy Abbey, who they believe failed to properly monitor the girl's sedation.

"He didn't pick it up fast enough, obviously," June says. "I'd been a trauma nurse for a long time. I've seen things happen when people didn't pay attention."

The Newsomes sued Johnson, Guy Abbey and David O'Neill, as well as Houston Northwest Medical Center and Johnson's outpatient clinic. The case against McNeill, who revived Jill, was dismissed quickly. The attorney for Abbey, who was not a licensed physician, argued that Johnson was "captain of the ship" and deserved the blame for the tragedy. The jury bought it, and declined to rule against Abbey. Johnson was found negligent in his care of Jill, as well as in his efforts to resuscitate her. In February 1982, the jury returned its $11.3 million judgment.

A few months after the judgment, Johnson took the first of a series of what might be considered retaliatory actions by suing People magazine and its owner, Time Inc., over a July 1982 article headlined "Licensed to Kill?" The story lumped Johnson in with other physicians who had been found negligent in the death or injury of patients, and raised the question of whether they should be allowed to continue practicing medicine. With a jury verdict against him, Johnson could never make much of a case for libel. The suit was dismissed in 1988.

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