I had to fly to Panama for this?

August 6, 2001

The author was forced to revisit the site of her internship for a brief but memorable legal tangle.

 

A Medical Economics Web Exclusive

I had to fly to Panama for this?

The author was forced to revisit the site of her internship for a brief but memorable legal tangle.

By Maura S. Welch, MD
Ob/Gyn/Garden City, KS

"Dr. Welch, there’s a Mr. Bontemp from Panama on the telephone for you," my receptionist informed me. My husband and I had each done an internship at Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone, so a call from Panama wasn’t necessarily surprising.

Mr. Bontemp (I’m not using real names), as it turned out, was a US Attorney in the Canal Zone. "Doctor," Mr. Bontemp explained, "during your time here, you treated a patient in the emergency room of Gorgas Hospital, a Mr. Montenez."

While Mr. Bontemp drew a breath to continue, my heart pounded. Was I going to be sued for something I had done as an intern, five years earlier?

He continued: "This man is suing the United States government for $3 million."

I’m ruined, I thought. I’d been in practice for just one year in rural southwest Kansas, in demand as a woman ob/gyn. I enjoyed my great family and my great life. All that was now imperiled by Mr. Bontemp’s news.

He went further: "The patient is suing the government for police brutality. He claims that he was driving along, minding his business, when a Canal Zone police officer stopped him, hauled him out of his car, and beat the living tar out of him."

My vital signs returned to normal. Seems Mr. Montenez was having an affair with the police officer’s wife, and the officer’s version was, of course, slightly different. He claimed that the plaintiff had assaulted him.

The outcome of the beating proved worse for Mr. Montenez, who appeared in the ER early on a Sunday morning. Mr. Bontemp proceeded to read my chart notes to me, and wanted to know whether I remembered the man. I had absolutely no memory of the incident.

Mr. Bontemp wanted me to appear in court in the Zone the next week and testify for the government. "Sorry," I answered, "I don’t think I can help you." He decided to send me photos of the patient and a copy of my record to assist my memory.

Two days later I received larger-than-life photos of the patient, taken by police who had booked him after his ER trip. I giggled as I remembered the movie Alice’s Restaurant, which included a courtroom scene where full-color glossies were displayed as the judge entered with a seeing-eye dog.

These pictures did me about as much good, although I could spot my neat little row of nylon sutures on his chin. I carefully read my chart. Boy, was I proud of it! I figured out that I had been the surgery intern on call for Saturday, and this guy came in at 5:00 on a Sunday morning. I had been slogging away for 22 hours by the time I met Mr. Montenez.

Nevertheless, the exam was detailed, the handwriting tidy, the responses appropriate: exam, mandible X-rays, suturing, pain meds, follow-up. Score one for the compulsive intern!

I stared at the great lustrous photos and my notes. I wouldn’t know this guy if I tripped over him.

I called Mr. Bontemp and gave him the bad news. In truth, I was a little relieved. Although it might be rather exciting to be plucked from Kansas and flown to Panama, like Dorothy escaping to Oz, I had a busy schedule of work, meetings, and my oldest son’s upcoming birthday. Mr. Bontemp disappointedly agreed that if I couldn’t remember Mr. Montenez I probably wouldn’t be much use to the government on the witness stand. And so I went back to my everyday existence.

Or so I thought. Friday of the same week, the sheriff appeared at the reception desk and handed me a subpoena that magisterially commanded me to appear in federal court in Panama on Monday. Unfortunately, as Mr. Bontemp later explained, the government voucher had not arrived with the subpoena, so I would have to cough up enough money for a plane ticket. I’d be reimbursed later.

So there I was on Sunday, a thousand miles away from Kansas. I received as a welcome a thorough soaking in one of the rainy season’s daily deluges. I went through the thin telephone book, calling lots of old buddies. Some were Americans who had stayed after finishing their intern years; others were Panamanians who had become "amigos del corazón" (friends of the heart) during my tenure there.

I made reservations to return to Kansas on Wednesday, come hell or high water. Mr. Bontemp would have to get me on the stand Monday or Tuesday.

I sat in the witness room all day Monday with a bunch of US Customs agents who were former Canal Zone police officers. I reminded Mr. Bontemp of my precious return ticket and advised him that he would have to let me testify before everyone else so that I could go home. He growled.

As Tuesday’s lunchtime passed, I got a little nervous. But at last, in the mid-afternoon tropical swelter, the bailiff summoned me. I swore to tell the truth and climbed into the witness box. This was my first time in a courtroom, and it was an impressive layout of rich accoutrements and suited attorneys.

First Mr. Bontemp quizzed me about the exam, the injuries, and their relatively minor nature. This took all of about two minutes.

Then the plaintiff’s attorney stood and smiled at me. "Doctor, I won’t keep you long. Doctor, can you tell me–do you actually have a true recollection of this man, or are you just speaking from the record?"

My honest answer, of course: "I do not remember him; I can just tell you this is my handwriting."

Thunder, lightning, and smoke erupted from the judge as he turned to Mr. Bontemp. The judge had clearly come from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. "Mistuh Bahldwin!" the judge shouted. "Do you mean ta tell me that this witnuss was brought heah from the Yewnited States just fa this?"

The hapless Mr. Bontemp simply shrugged.

The judge turned to me, as I shrank into the stand. "Doctah," he dripped each word gently, "Ah ahpahlajazz fo the inconveeenience. Yah excuused."

 



Maura Welch. I had to fly to Panama for this?.

Medical Economics

2001;15.

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