Doctor From Hell . . . Or Godsend?

Dr. Kermit Gosnell (above, left) speaks with his attorney, William Brennan. Raids and allegations have turned up information and evidence that has led to the shuttering of Gosnell's West Philly medical clinic (right).
Dr. Kermit Gosnell (above, left) speaks with his attorney, William Brennan. Raids and allegations have turned up information and evidence that has led to the shuttering of Gosnell's West Philly medical clinic (right).
Posted: March 11, 2010

IN A MATTER of a few moments - long enough for men with badges to say that they had a search warrant - Kermit B. Gosnell's 43-year medical career came to a grinding halt.

A squad of imposing federal agents greeted Gosnell with the warrant when he arrived at his West Philadelphia practice, the Women's Medical Society, on Feb. 18.

The agents began raiding the clinic, which was filled at the time with patients who were waiting to be seen by the doctor.

"It was tremendously traumatic - totally unexpected," Gosnell, 69, said this week. "I was told [by agents] that I knew what this was about. But I really didn't know."

After the raid, pieces of the now-familiar tale fell like dominoes.

On Feb. 22, state authorities temporarily suspended Gosnell's medical license, labeling his clinic "deplorable" and a danger to the public. Investigators said that unlicensed employees were medicating and examining patients.

Horror stories emerged, in the form of state documents and old lawsuits. The clinic was linked to the death of one patient, then another.

An array of women came forward claiming that Gosnell had seriously injured them during abortions, leveling accusations that included puncturing their organs and leaving pieces of fetuses inside them.

The bad news continued to pile up. On March 2, health officials in Delaware suspended Gosnell's license to practice in their state.

Yesterday, the head of the National Abortion Federation said that the agency had refused Gosnell's request to become a member after its investigators found more than a dozen violations of the federation's guidelines during a visit to the clinic in December.

But other, more positive stories came to light, too, from patients who described Gosnell in glowing terms, likening him to an old-fashioned physician who makes house calls and cares more about people and neighborhood roots than getting paid on time.

Indeed, in an interview with the Daily News on Monday, Gosnell - a tall, freckled, soft-spoken man - repeatedly talked about his devotion to the impoverished community that he's served for decades.

So, the question is: Which of the two caricatures is the real Kermit Gosnell: the doctor who was running a clinic with bloodstained floors where women suffered unthinkable complications from abortions, or the caring physician who was a godsend to a poor, underserved population?

'A positive force'

It wasn't always like this, with the eye-catching headlines and cringe-worthy stories about abortions gone wrong.

There was a time when Gosnell was just another kid in West Philly, trying to figure out what to do with his life. He said that he grew up an only child and attended Central High School.

He admired the work ethic of his mother, Cornelia, who was a court clerk for the city. It was she who suggested that he consider a career as a physician.

"She thought it would be a good profession for me," Gosnell recalled while sitting at a conference table in the Center City office of his attorney, William J. Brennan.

He studied in the 1960s at Jefferson Medical College where, he said, he was among those who pushed for the "liberalization of the performance of therapeutic abortions."

Gosnell said that he also studied drug rehab, and later served as director of narcotic rehabilitation for the Young Great Society, which was organized by legendary anti-drug activist Herman Wrice.

"It was very much of an avant-garde, community-sponsored organization that sought to effect change in Mantua," he said, "and there was significant change in that community."

Gosnell became licensed as a physician and surgeon in Pennsylvania in July 1967. Three years later, he was licensed in New York, and began performing abortions at a clinic called Women's Medical Services, in New York City.

It was before the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case, which declared abortion legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

"I found the experience very difficult," Gosnell said. "You were under time constraints to perform the procedures so that the patients could get transportation back to wherever they were from.

"There was very little opportunity to assure that this was the best decision for the patient."

He soon returned to Philadelphia and set up a practice at 36th and Walnut streets.

"I wanted to be an effective, positive force in the minority community," Gosnell said.

But that office ended up in controversy. In 1972, he performed experimental "super coil" abortions on women that resulted in serious injuries to nine patients, the Inquirer has reported.

Gosnell was not charged with any wrongdoing; the experimental procedure had been developed by a psychologist from California.

Around that same time, Gosnell said, he was a single father with two boys who cooked "three batches of food on Sunday for the rest of the week." (He later married and raised seven children. )

Still, he apparently found time to make an impact in the community by helping drug addicts get back on their feet.

Herbert Creighton, 64, of Wynnefield, said Gosnell gave him a job at the Mantua Halfway House, where the doctor served as director.

"I had some problems back them," Creighton said. "I was messing with drugs and all kinds of stuff. He [Gosnell] kept me out of jail and changed my whole life around. He's a wonderful guy."

Flexible practice

In 1978, Gosnell became board-certified in family practice and opened the Women's Medical Society at 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue. Abortion procedures, Gosnell said, made up about 30 percent to 40 percent of his workload.

Armed with a gentle demeanor and a willingness to bend certain rules, he won the affection and admiration of many of the patients who relied on him for primary care.

"When I wasn't working, I didn't have money to pay him," said Deborah Gray, 57, of West Philadelphia, a patient of Gosnell's for 37 years. "I had no health insurance, but he would put the money I owed him on the books."

Gray used Gosnell for anything that ailed her. If she needed medication, he often would retrieve some from a closet in his office and give it to her free, sparing her a pharmacy run, she said.

Once, he delivered medication to her father when he suffered a bad case of the flu, Gray said. "If you were ever sick and couldn't get to his office, he would call in to the pharmacy for you," she added.

"Many times people have not been able to fully pay me for my services," Gosnell noted. "As a principle, I have not refused to provide them care."

Another longtime patient, Debra Reynolds, described Gosnell as "an old-fashioned doctor in a country town that you could call any time."

Reynolds, 52, of West Philly, said Gosnell treated her and provided her with medication even though she was once uninsured for 10 years. "He's done so many things for the love of this community," she added.

Yet while Gosnell undoubtedly remained popular with his primary-care patients, hints of trouble began to surface with women who turned to him for abortions.

'Extensive' problems

The horror stories stretch back to the 1980s.

Some surfaced in the pages of long-forgotten civil lawsuits; others came to light when the former patients of Gosnell reached out to the media.

There was a common theme: women, some as young as 13, had gone to Gosnell for abortions - some as late as five months into their pregnancies - only to suffer serious complications.

Marie Smith, 33, of West Philadelphia told the Daily News last month that she nearly died after Gosnell performed an abortion on her in 1999.

Smith said that doctors told her that the arm and leg of the fetus had been left inside her. She sued him in 2001 and was awarded $5,000, court records show.

Another patient, Dana Haynes, sued Gosnell in 2008, claiming that he had lacerated her uterus, cervix and small bowel during an abortion in 2008, according to court documents.

Haynes claimed that Gosnell allowed her to bleed for hours before calling an ambulance.

Other patients told similar tales and depicted the clinic as dirty and frightening.

The malpractice complaints were made worse by allegations that Gosnell was relying on uncertified employees to medicate and examine patients.

State officials fined him $1,000 in 1996 because an uncertified assistant had treated one patient and had written a prescription in 1990.

Last month, state investigators said that an unlicensed employee had medicated a pregnant woman, Karnamay Mongar, who died after an abortion at the clinic in November.

Gosnell's attorney did not let him address any of the claims leveled against him and noted that he has not been charged with a crime. But the doctor said that students from numerous local medical schools have worked at his clinic over the years.

He was clearly irked by claims that his clinic was "deplorable" or had "bloodstained floors," as state investigators had said.

"If you're looking for a hospital setting, it's very different. It's designed to be comfortable for our patients," Gosnell said, as he showed this reporter iPhone photos taken inside his clinic, which appeared bright and clean.

Gosnell noted that in December he asked officials from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) to evaluate his clinic.

"They didn't raise any concerns about cleanliness," Gosnell said. "The only issues were administrative. There was no clinical, technical or hygienic criticism at all."

"That's not true at all," said Vicki Saporta, president of NAF, who was dumbfounded by Gosnell's account of how the agency had assessed him.

Saporta told the Daily News yesterday that officials from the NAF, which sets the standard for abortion care in North America, visited Gosnell's clinic for two days because he had requested to become a member of the federation.

She said that NAF "denied his membership request" because the clinic didn't meet the federation's standards.

"There were 19 areas where [the clinic] was in noncompliance with our guidelines. It was quite extensive," Saporta said.

Gosnell, however, appears to believe that his clinic is inviting and comfortable even as outside agencies view it as anything but.

Gosnell's attorney forbade him from addressing much of the other disturbing accusations, noting that the doctor hasn't even been charged with a crime.

But he was clearly bothered by the Frankenstein-like portrait that much of the public has of him because of recent news stories.

"No one is perfect. Everyone tries to be perfect. I aspire to perfection, certainly for my patients," he said, as his eyes drifted and voice trailed off.

Finally, he settled on a thought. "I feel in the long term I will be vindicated."

Staff writer Dana DiFilippo contributed to this report.

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