Family of medspa patient talks for first time to expose medical loophole in Maryland

Baltimore - The owners of a Timonium clinic forced to close by the state are keeping quiet.  But the family of a woman who died after surgery at Monarch Medspa is talking, opening up for an exclusive on-camera interview with ABC2 News Investigators. 

When you dine out, an inspection lets you know the restaurant is safe.  The same is true with your car and your daycare.  The state looks at all these things to protect you from harm. 

But sometimes we just assume things are getting a closer look, especially when it comes to health care.  That's not always the case according to Dr. Peter Pronovost, VP of Patient Safety and Quality at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  He says, "Your average viewer would never dream that that's the case.  They think when you're delivering care, there's got be some oversight."

There is tremendous oversight in the operating rooms in hospitals.  But in Maryland, some other locations where surgery is done simply don't.  Maryland's Health Secretary, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, acknowledges some clinics where cosmetic surgery procedures are done don't get licensed or inspected.        

In Maryland, he says medspas and plastic surgery clinics that don't bill insurance as "ambulatory surgery centers" aren't overseen like hospitals, even though they may do some of the same procedures. 

It's a legal loophole some consider a fatal flaw in the state's health system.  And the family of a woman who died following a procedure at a Baltimore County medspa is attempting to shed light on the issue.  Denise Witherspoon and her family spoke exclusively with ABC2 about the death of their sister, Eula.

Before today, you've never heard her name.  But we've been reporting on her story for months.  Witherspoon's family says the 59-year-old Baltimore native was one of three patients the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says got infected with an aggressive form of strep after procedures at Monarch Medspa in Timonium.  During an emotional interview, Denise Witherspoon told us, "We suffered a tremendous loss."

Eula's family says she died September 17th at the University of Maryland Medical center, after battling an infection she got during liposuction.  Michele Thompson, Witherspoon's sister says the death was a shock, "I screamed.  I know everybody in the ER heard me.  I screamed to my mother and I told my mom she couldn't have her."

But Eula, a longtime addiction nurse at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore and a surrogate mother to her 12 brothers and sisters, was gone.  Her life, which had been filled with travel that took her around the world, was cut short following plastic surgery. 

It was a clinic Witherspoon's family assumed was just like a hospital.  But a state order shows investigators sent into Monarch after Eula's death found "probable deviations from standard infection control".  Monarch was forced to close and the MD DHMH release on the case contained a line that stunned the Witherspoon family, stating, "Cosmetic surgery centers in Maryland are not currently subject to state licensure."

The loophole shocked the Witherspoon family, but Monarch is not the only clinic lacking in oversight.  ABC2 Investigators found other cosmetic surgery centers across Maryland that could fit into this category.  The doctors who work there are licensed, regulated and if need be, punished, by the Maryland Board of Physicians.  But the centers where they work are not necessarily overseen. 

Dr. Pronovost says the law, in this case, isn't keeping pace with innovation, "Things that are done in an office now we wouldn't have dreamed of doing five years ago in an office.  The regulations in some parts just haven't kept up with them."  But Witherspoon's death has forced the state to play catch up.  Dr. Sharfstein says, "There is a bit of a loophole and it's a loophole we think we should be closed."  He believes Eula's case shines a light on a potential risk, saying, "I don't want to hear about outbreaks where people are dying in the state of Maryland where it could have been prevented and I think our job is to figure out ways to prevent those from happening in the future."

In October, Sharfstein's office asked for public comment on whether more oversight was needed.  The Maryland Ambulatory Surgery Association said regulation of clinics shouldn't be tied to their billing practices.  Sharfstein thinks that's key as well, asking lawmakers to make changes in this session so every plastic surgery clinic gets oversight.

Sharfstein also wants more transparency for consumers.  He's asking lawmakers to give you more information, so when you search your doctor online you can find out whether they'll do your surgery in a place that's accredited and regulated.  As of press time, a DHMH rep says legislation has been drafted but not yet introduced.  Sharfstein tells us, "We want to really learn the lessons of the tragedy here and try to make it safer for people in Maryland."

It's too late for Eula Witherspoon though.  Her family is now fighting to close this clinic loophole, looking for support for legislation they want to be called "Sister's Law".  Denise Witherspoon says, "Would we want this?  No.  We want our sister back.  Totally.  We need her.  We are lost.  She was our rock."

The Witherspoons cannot control the past.  But they can find strength in being the foundation of Eula's future, ensuring she didn't die in vain.  It's a mission for their family, says, Gary Witherspoon, "We are the guardians of her legacy and it's our job to make sure this type of thing doesn't happen to anyone else."

The Witherspoon family is working with Baltimore-based attorney, Phillip Potts.  He tells ABC2 a civil lawsuit is pending in this case. 

Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says a final investigative report related to the Monarch case is still being developed and will be made available publicly upon completion. 

ABC2 made repeated attempts to get a response from the owners of Monarch Medspa.  This week, their attorney, Ely Goldin, sent us this statement, "As you know, back in September of 2012, Baltimore laser solutions, Inc. D/b/a Monarch med spa ("monarch") voluntarily agreed to suspend all procedures at its Timonium, Maryland facility pending an epidemiological investigation by the Maryland department of health and mental hygiene (the "department").  Monarch has and continues to cooperate with the department in every possible way.  All monarch employees who had any contact with patients in Maryland were tested at state-designated laboratories and cleared.  Pending the completion of the department's investigation, the Timonium facility remains closed.  Monarch has been in business for eight years and has successfully performed thousands of complication-free procedures.  Given the ongoing investigation, the company is unable to offer interviews or comment on your story beyond the information set forth in this statement, which is already in the public domain."

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