By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Fernandez says Peterson only waited "a month or two" for access to the linear accelerator. "The disease was stable," he says. "There was a delay, but I don't think [her condition] had anything to do with the delay."
Marie Johnston begs to differ. A close friend of Peterson's who frequently accompanied her on visits to the doctor, Johnston says Fernandez stalled for at least six months until the accelerator was available. She's convinced that immediate action might have saved her friend, and she holds Fernandez responsible. "He just literally sealed the woman's death warrant," Johnston says.
Naturally, the bills soon began to arrive, but there was little corresponding revenue to pay them. Neither Kubricht nor Miller spent much time at the center, and Fernandez was slow to build the practice, which depends almost entirely on referrals from other doctors. Designed to break even at about 16 patients a day, the center rarely saw more than five or six.
Kubricht had access to cash, but not all of it went to the business. Just three months after the center opened, Kubricht pulled together $150,000 from several sources and invested it in a get-rich-quick scheme involving overseas currency that was going to return $30 million in a matter of weeks. Not surprisingly, more than four years later, the money still hasn't materialized. "Supposedly, it's still alive," says Kubricht without embarrassment.
In Kubricht's hands, money generally seems to have a strangely gaseous quality. Quick to lend and quick to borrow, with little time for paperwork or other niggling details, the physicist has a knack for running up obligations without an ability to cover them. "If you want to say I'm a crummy businessman," he says, "I guess I don't have an argument for that."
Early in the center's existence, for example, Kubricht decided to donate a mammography unit to The Rose, a nonprofit women's health-care organization. Kubricht made a number of payments on the equipment, but when the center's finances tightened, the payments ceased, and The Rose had to pick up the tab at no small expense. "[The center] got into trouble," Kubricht sighs. "I had overloaded my ability once again."
In 1994, the relationship between Miller and Kubricht fell apart. The Florida investor sued his partner, accusing Kubricht of "numerous acts of misconduct, negligence and wrongdoing," including failure to pay the bills and plundering the center's bank accounts. In addition to the letter of credit, the suit charged, Miller had advanced an additional $225,000 to launch the center, based on Kubricht's promises of fat returns.
Typically, Kubricht blames Fernandez for the row, saying that the doctor fed Miller false information in order to undermine the relationship. "He managed to convince Miller that I had embezzled money from the center," says Kubricht.
Apparently, the judge in the case was also concerned, though, because he issued a temporary restraining order against Kubricht that forced him to open the center's books. Eventually the matter was settled, with Kubricht buying out Miller's share, though the money still hasn't been paid. "The note still exists," he says. "I would still honor it."
That's easy for Kubricht to say, because he's lost touch with his former partner. "I don't hear from him anymore," Kubricht says. "I don't even know where he is."
As the debts mounted, Kubricht had to juggle the finances, hold the repo man at bay and find new pots of money to keep the doors open. Despite some success getting investors to lend large sums (some with no formal agreement for repayment), conditions at the center deteriorated. At one point, the water was cut off for nonpayment. Paychecks were sporadic. One day, a deputy arrived to collect a debt and was about to take the artwork in lieu of payment when someone rustled up the necessary funds.
More alarmingly, the equipment was being neglected, which increased the risk that patient care might be compromised. Medical physicists, critical to ensure proper administration of radiation to the patients, were in short supply, as the center was unable to pay them. "I am concerned that the Houston Cancer Care Center is operating without adequate medical physics coverage," wrote Baylor College of Medicine physicist Stewart Bushong in December 1994.
Bushong, who acted as the center's official radiation safety officer, a position required by law, noted that state law also mandated that spot checks of the linear accelerator be conducted by a physicist at least once a week. "I just want you to be aware of this requirement, which I believe is not being filled at this time," he wrote.
A longtime acquaintance of Kubricht through whom the center had been contracting physicists, Bushong finally terminated his association with the center entirely the following May. "We have now finished two years with marginally acceptable medical coverage," Bushong wrote in a letter to Kubricht. "Because of my deep concern about the safe operation of that facility, it is necessary that I resign as radiation safety officer."
The question of safety would later haunt those patients and family members who received radiation treatment from Fernandez during that period. A number would file suit.
As summer waned, the center's ever-deepening financial hole was rapidly threatening to bring down the business. "The center has not been cleaned since April 1, 1995," radiation therapist and center employee Denise Clements wrote in a letter to Kubricht on July 24. "This is a health hazard to the employees and patients. The floors have not been mopped, the garbage cans are running over, the commode and sinks are horrible with filth. We have no linens and are unable to change the sheets between patient treatments."