Pain clinic doctor thrives amid deaths, lawsuits
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 12:25 a.m. Sunday, April 4, 2010
Posted: 9:18 p.m. Saturday, April 3, 2010
WEST PALM BEACH — When 21-year-old Anthony Lauzerique arrived at Dr. John Christensen's office in early 2007, he claimed he was taking a veritable drugstore of powerful narcotics.
Eighty oxycodone, 400 roxycodone, 90 methadone and 90 Xanax tablets, plus two or three bottles of liquid oxycodone, were what Lauzerique told the West Palm Beach doctor he needed each month to numb the excruciating pain he suffered since undergoing seven knee surgeries.
Without contacting the doctor who supposedly had prescribed the potentially deadly combination of pills, to try to determine what was causing the young man's pain, or ordering so much as an X-ray, Christensen handed Lauzerique new prescriptions for nearly all of the drugs.
Five months later, the Royal Palm Beach High School baseball standout died in his sleep from a drug overdose at the Wellington home of his parents, George and Jacque Lauzerique.
Lauzerique wasn't the only one.
According to records at the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office, prescriptions Christensen wrote were found near the bodies of four other young men who died of drug overdoses in 2007. Further, a 24-year-old Royal Palm Beach construction worker died of a drug overdose in 2008 six months after Christensen prescribed a potent cocktail of painkillers to help him deal with knee and back discomfort, according to a lawsuit filed this year in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
Christensen, who runs the A1A Health & Wellness Clinic on Broadway in West Palm Beach and clinics in Port St. Lucie and Daytona Beach, didn't return phone calls for this story.
But in a deposition in a lawsuit Lauzerique's parents filed against Christensen, the 58-year-old doctor was surprisingly candid about his techniques.
He acknowledged that Lauzerique could have made up the stories about his drug use and knee pain simply to get the narcotics. He admitted he did no tests, such as a urinalysis, to determine whether Lauzerique was actually using the drugs. He said he couldn't find the doctor Lauzerique told him had prescribed the medication or those who had performed the knee surgeries.
He described his lack of diligence as humanitarian.
"Because as a doctor, one of the first things you do is you want to build the patient bond," he said. "If you don't build the patient bond, they're going to go somewhere else and then you can't help the patient. I wanted to believe him."
State files complaint
Instead of investigating, he said he decided to wean Lauzerique off the drugs by handing him monthly prescriptions for 60 tablets of methadone, 300 of oxycodone and 60 Xanax. He said he didn't prescribe a drug used to help addicts beat their habits because it wouldn't have dulled Lauzerique's claimed knee pain.
In a complaint filed last week, the Florida Department of Health described Christensen's behavior as negligent.
Christensen, it wrote, "failed to practice medicine with that level of care, skill and treatment which is recognized by a reasonably prudent similar physician as being acceptable under similar conditions and circumstances."
Still, it didn't seek an emergency revocation of his license, said attorney David Spicer, who represents Lauzerique's parents and the father of the construction worker who died of an overdose.
It will take at least a year for the complaint to wind its way through the administrative process, he said. In the meantime, Christensen can continue to dole out prescriptions and other medical care, which Spicer estimates generates between $170,000 and $230,000 a month.
Although the complaint focuses on his treatment of Lauzerique, there were other warning signs that something was amiss.
Some of the credentials he lists on a state Web site, which consumers are encouraged to use to select a doctor, are bogus.
For instance, two certifications he claims to have from the American Board of Preventative Medicine, for family medicine and addiction recovery, don't exist. Though he claims he's a member of the American Board of Pain Medicine, he's not, according to board records. And the certification he lists from that specialty board doesn't exist.
Further, he claims he completed an internship in internal medicine at the University of Nevada. However, during his deposition, he admitted he was kicked out after one year.
Trained first as a chiropractor, he got his medical license after graduating in 1995 from the Universidad Federico Henriquez y Carvajal school of medicine in the Dominican Republic. Headed by a chiropractor who died in prison on fraud charges, it was closed in 1998 by Dominican officials, who found "grave academic deficiencies." A U.S. report linked it closely to another school that was closed for being a diploma mill.
While claiming to know nothing about the controversy that surrounded his alma mater, Christensen said he passed all the requisite exams to get a medical license.
"We took the same examinations that the United States medical students took and I did better than the people graduating Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins medical school," he said during his deposition. "The United States licensing exam, I did better on the exam than they did."
George and Jacque Lauzerique said they hope some good can come from their son's death. Christensen settled their lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. State records show his insurance company paid about $250,000.
The Lauzeriques said the lawsuit was never about money. By filing a lawsuit, they hoped to stop Christensen from hurting others.
Lost job, moved home
They knew their son had problems. Once happy-go-lucky, smart, athletic and competitive, he became sullen. He lost his job. He lost his car. He moved back home.
But he wouldn't talk about what was bothering him, much less what drugs he was taking.
It wasn't until they found a bottle of pills in his room that they understood the depths of his addiction. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.
"Every waking moment he's in my thoughts," said George Lauzerique, a former professional baseball player and scout who once thought his son would follow him into the big leagues. "If I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, there's Anthony. If I sit down to watch TV, there's Anthony."
Both said they have tried to think of what they could have done to stop him. "My biggest guilt is maybe I could have been more tolerant, more supportive," George Lauzerique said. But, both agreed, once their son was seduced by prescription drugs, it was almost impossible to reach him.
"There was absolutely no talking to him because there's no talking to a drug," Jacque Lauzerique said.
They want to reach out to other parents who are dealing with children hooked on prescription drugs.
"It's a sickness," George Lauzerique said of the advice he would offer parents. "You wouldn't throw your kid away if he had cancer or if he had hepatitis, and it's the same thing."
But mainly, they want to see Christensen put out of business. Jacque Lauzerique said she was pleased the state finally acted.
"It's a victory because at least they filed a case against him," she said. "I just hope the board does its job and no one else dies in the meantime."
Anyone wishing to contact the Lauzeriques about a loved one can do so by e-mailing Ahelpinghandhere4you@yahoo.com
Staff writer Andrew Abramson contributed to this story.