Nature of the Beast

Plastic surgeon Billy Ringer has been sued ten times for malpractice. He's on probation for sexual misconduct. He sewed a needle into Colleen Guidy. But he's still in business -- cutting, vacuuming, rearranging and, it seems, injuring patients.

Last July, Katrina Pierce settled her malpractice case against Ringer after he allegedly ruptured her breast implants by squeezing them to resolve a hardening problem. "Scarred her up pretty badly," says attorney Chad Matthews. Though Ringer says he did no more than repay Pierce the cost of her treatment, her lawyer disagrees. "The settlement was beyond the cost of the procedure," Matthews says. "He's still paying us monthly, but we have to get after him" to make the payments.

That case also brought up another thread that recurs in Ringer's collisions with the legal system. "There were allegations of trying to get insurance to pay for [the procedure] when it shouldn't have," says Matthews. Cosmetic surgery is generally not covered by health insurance policies, but many medical procedures are, such as hernia repair. Farrell's court file references an "incisional hernia" repair that was filed with the insurance company but never performed. Ringer diagnosed Guidy with an umbilical hernia and says he fixed it; according to Guidy, he was going to file it with the insurance company for reimbursement (though he says he told her to file it herself).

In fact, many of Ringer's tummy-tuck patients coincidentally had hernias, says former medical assistant Traci Williamson. It became something of a joke around the office, Williamson says; even Ringer's employees, who got free annual cosmetic surgery procedures as part of their benefits package, needed repair. "We all had hernias," she says, laughing.

Colleen Guidy after surgery: Just a little dead skin, or a botched job?
Colleen Guidy after surgery: Just a little dead skin, or a botched job?
Billy Ringer: "You can't do surgery without complications."
Billy Ringer: "You can't do surgery without complications."

For the most part, Ringer's legal troubles didn't interrupt his business.

But the King case filtered through to the Board of Medical Examiners, which brought charges against Ringer in 1995. The detailed record of hearings before an administrative law judge graphically lays out the charges and countercharges: King, an interior decorator, had agreed in late 1993 to exchange her services for a liposuction job. On two occasions at his home, she stated, he made crude sexual advances that she rebuffed. Later, while at his office for a consultation, he fondled her and exposed himself.

Ringer brought three witnesses who had worked with him at the time. They all testified that it was King who had made advances toward Ringer, that she was infatuated with him and made up all the allegations after he spurned her. But the judge found the testimony staged and lacking in credibility.

Another ex-patient, identified in the record as "K.L.," also testified. During a post-eyelid-surgery checkup, she said, Ringer asked when he was going to get to see her naked again. She hadn't realized Ringer had ever seen her naked, though she'd been under general anesthesia and had been wearing a gown. Ringer denied making the remark, though he told the judge he often told patients, "Can't wait to see you next time," and K.L. had probably misconstrued it as "Can't wait to see you naked sometime."

Based on the findings, the judge wrote, "Dr. Ringer has engaged in unprofessional and dishonorable conduct that is likely to injure the public." The terms of his probation required Ringer to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, take ethics classes, perform 120 hours of community service per year and have a chaperone with him anytime he sees a female patient. But the order wouldn't take effect until December 1998, as Ringer pursued various appeals. He took them all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which in February refused to hear the case.

Ringer decries the board's action. "I think it's ridiculous," he says. "They had one witness saying one thing, and I had four people saying just the opposite. They decided to take the one person's story and believe that. Anybody who would read the [record] would say, 'Bullshit.' "

He also has unkind words for King: "She was a frickin' wacko."

Michelle Barr spreads piles of paper across the conference room table at the office of her attorney. Pale and tentative, with a capacity for recalling names, dates and other details, Barr is embroiled in a he-said, she-said battle with Ringer. But she has at least some of what Ringer's foes typically lack: hard evidence.

Hired as a receptionist in January 2000, Barr eventually moved up to more involved tasks that included coordinating patient needs, ordering supplies, and handling billing and collections. Later, she also assisted Ringer by preparing instruments, checking vital signs and giving medication, though she had no prior training or experience in the medical field.

Barr enjoyed her job until one evening shortly after Memorial Day. She entered Ringer's office to review the day's messages, she says, when he closed the door behind her. Claustrophobic, she immediately moved to open it. When she did, she says, "He grabbed my breast, and then he tried to stick his hand down my pants." She kicked him and ran out of the office. Barr immediately took vacation time, but agreed to return after he called her to apologize and promised it would never happen again.

Ringer finds the account laughable. "What a ridiculous accusation," he says. "She's a 280-pound redhead that I did everything in the world to help. I just can't imagine anybody sexually harassing her."

On June 21 Ringer accidentally smacked his head in his bathroom. Barr says he looked terrible the next day; she and her colleagues urged him to get medical care, but he refused. Five days later, she says, she visited him at home and called 911. He was rushed to the hospital and had emergency brain surgery. Ringer was out of work until August. His wife, who has lived in Pennsylvania the past two years, flew down to manage the clinic's financial affairs until he recovered.

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