A high-profile cosmetic surgeon is accused of negligence, dishonesty and unprofessional conduct, including allegations that go back more than a decade that this high-profile Coronado physician put patients at serious risk.
One of those patients revealed the horror of her cosmetic surgery in an exclusive interview with NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton.
Magdalena Hatanaka and her attorney want the Medical Board of California to act immediately and suspend Dr. Jeffry Schafer’s license.
Hatanaka also hopes her emotional story serves as a strong reminder of why it's so important for prospective patients to check their doctor's license before making an appointment or submitting to a medical procedure.
"It felt they were choking me. It felt like they were cutting my head off,” Hatanaka recalled of her surgery. “I felt so much pain around my neck and my face. I thought I was going to die.”
Hatanaka recently told NBC 7 Investigates that even two years after that terrifying experience, she still suffers from post-traumatic stress and pain in her face.
"It's always headaches, pain, unable to sleep, nightmares, flashbacks," she said.
All this attractive mother of two wanted, she said, was to look younger.
"I just wanted to, like, you know, feel better about myself,” she recalled.
In October 2011, Hatanaka went to the New Image Cosmetic Surgery in Coronado, where she says Dr. Schafer told her about a new procedure called "liposculpture," which would take fat from her abdomen and inject it into her face.
"I just made it clear that I wanted to have my expression lines (in the corners of her mouth) filled out a little," Hatanaka said of her conversation with Dr. Schafer
She also wanted a neck lift.
What she didn't agree to was the nightmare she said happened in that surgery.
During the procedure, which she was told would take three hours, Hatanaka was supposed to be under "conscious sedation," a procedure in which she’d remain technically "awake," but unable to feel any pain or remember anything about the surgery.
Instead, Hatanaka and her lawyer say that procedure took almost eight hours, and worse, Hatanaka to this day remembers being at times conscious, awake and aware of what was happening to her.
"I felt trapped in my body," Hatanaka recalled during an emotional interview in her lawyer’s office. “I was screaming out loud, and they were not acknowledging that I was in pain."
Her attorney, medical malpractice expert Robert Vaage, told NBC 7 Investigates that “in the modern world, in a hospital or in a doctor’s office, this simply shouldn't happen. Where we see that kind of thing happening would be in movies where we see the Civil War, where somebody is having their leg removed without the proper anesthesia.”
Vaage said the evidence gathered during the “discovery” phase of Hatanaka’s lawsuit strongly supports his client’s story and prompted Schafer's insurance company to pay Magdalena more than $900,000 to drop her lawsuit before trial.
Vaage says the strongest evidence included pre-trial testimony from Jasmin Herrera, a New Image medical assistant.
In her deposition, one of the attorneys asked Herrera, "Did Ms. Hatanaka do anything that let you guys know she was uncomfortable?”
“Yeah,” Herrera responded.
Attorney: “What did she do?”
Herrera: “She said to stop.”
Attorney: “Okay. Did she make any movements with her body?”
Herrera: “Yeah. She was moving. She was like, squirming around and stuff."
Attorney: "Did she have to be held down during the fat transfer?”
Attorney: “And what did you have to do to hold her down?”
Herrera: “I just held her feet down."
Attorney: "Did Dr. Schafer tell you to hold her down?”
Dr. Schafer and his current attorney, John Dratz, Jr., both declined NBC 7’s request for an interview on those allegations.
But the attorney agreed to review questions submitted to him in writing and responded with a four-page letter that strongly denies almost everything Hatanaka and her attorney told us.
For example, Dr. Schafer contends that the "volume of I-V drugs given to (Hatanaka) would have prevented any discomfort" and that "no one in the (operating) room... says (Hatanaka) had any pain."
Dr. Schafer also says Jasmin Herrera, the medical assistant who provided that damning pre-trial testimony, was not even in the operating room during Hatanaka's surgery.
As for the $925,000 settlement, Schafer’s current attorney says, “The insurance company settled the lawsuit despite Dr. Schafer’s desire to go to trial and contest the patient’s allegations. Dr. Schafer never signed the settlement agreement.”
However, a copy of Schafer’s medical malpractice insurance policy obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, includes specific language assuring the doctor that “we (the insurance company) will not settle any claim without the consent of the insured.”
And though Schafer did not sign the settlement agreement, Hatanaka’s lawyer sent Schafer’s former attorney a letter before the settlement was finalized, confirming that “…you had Dr. Schafer’s consent and agreement to resolve the case for the agreed-upon terms and conditions.” In that letter, Hatanaka’s lawyer tells Schafer’s lawyer “If my understanding of all this is incorrect, please let me know immediately.”
Hatanaka’s lawyer told us, he never heard back from the attorney.
Today, more than two years after her surgery, Hatanaka says one of her biggest mistakes was not checking Schafer’s background on the state Medical Board’s website.
She says, had she done so, she would have canceled her surgery and found another doctor.
The Medical Board’s case against Dr. Schafer is spelled out in page after page of documents on the board’s public website.
“So it’s something that’s worth every minute to take a look at,” Hatanaka said.
The accusations against Schafer include gross negligence, dishonesty and unprofessional conduct, with examples of patient mistreatment dating back 13 years.
Medical board investigators alleged that Schafer "allowed unlicensed staff to give patients anesthetic" and let a physician’s assistant “perform cosmetic surgeries without the patients' knowledge."
Those documents also allege that New Image surgery suites and offices were “cluttered and filthy", and reveal a patient’s complaint that Schafer "walked around in his bloody scrubs and there would be blood all over the floors and carpets."
Schafer did not contest those accusations with the board and instead entered into two separate settlements, in 2008 and again in 2010.
Both times, his license was revoked, but those revocations were immediately put on hold, and Schafer was allowed to continue treating patients, while on probation with the Medical Board.
Schafer agreed to numerous restrictions, terms, and conditions, including the completion of ethics and medical record keeping courses, and more clinical training.
But last June, the Medical Board filed yet another accusation against him.
This latest 29-page document alleges that Schafer violated his probation and accuses him of gross negligence, incompetence and repeated negligent acts involving four patients.
In their letter to NBC 7 Investigates, Schafer and his attorney say this latest accusation was "orchestrated by a disgruntled former employee," and Schafer "vigorously denies" the allegations. The doctor insists he never "allowed unlicensed staff to give patients anesthetic" and "denies that he allowed a physician's assistant to perform cosmetic surgery."
Schafer also dismisses as "slanderous" any claim that his surgery rooms were "filthy", and says an independent medical expert regularly viewed his offices and never saw a problem.
But Hatanaka’s attorney Robert Vaage still says the Medical Board should seek an Interim Suspension Order against Dr. Schafer, which would prohibit him from seeing patients while he fights these new accusations.
“I think the Medical Board, in some cases, doesn't act strongly enough and quickly enough,” Vaage explained. “And I'll leave that up to the public to decide whether or not that's true in this case."
In a statement to NBC 7 Investigates, the Medical Board defended its handling of the Schafer case and stressed that Schafer’s current probation includes "strict terms and conditions."
The Board’s public information officer noted that an Administrative Law Judge will suspend a doctor’s license only when the Medical Board presents quote "'clear and convincing evidence that a physician is an immediate danger to the public."
Shafer's lawyer agrees and told us his client is not a "threat to the public."
The attorney also said Schafer has "treated thousands of patients with excellent results."
But Magdalena Hatanaka also wants the Medical Board to pursue the immediate suspension of Dr. Schafer's license.
Yet she told us, even that action and the money she got from her legal settlement, won't relieve her pain or erase her memories.
"It doesn't make everything okay,” she said. “You know, the pain is still there. I mean, the fear is still there. I can never take back what happened. That's not going to be cured with money."
As for Dr. Schafer, a five-day hearing on the Medical Board's request to revoke Doctor Schafer's probation is scheduled for Aug. 25.
But that proceeding could be canceled because Schafer's medical license expires in April, and his lawyer told us Schafer will not attempt to renew his license.
In fact, Schafer’s lawyer says his client has already “been forced to retire as a physician due to (his own) health reasons” and is "no longer affiliated with New Image Cosmetic Surgery."