Cancer doctor’s victims say restitution falls short
Teddy Howard of Clinton Township was one of many people needlessly given chemotherapy treatments from cancer doctor Farid Fata. He continues to suffer, "for what, greed? Power? Thrill? It's an awful thing to go through." Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
It’s been two years since Farid Fata was sent to prison for giving chemotherapy to cancer-free patients while over-medicating others, but his victims are still living with the physical, financial and emotional scars.
Rhonda Bonk Teague, 54, of Holly says she feels like she is living with a time bomb.
Teague, a former trucking company owner, was told by Fata that she had throat cancer. She received 36 treatments of radiation and six months of chemotherapy.
Teague said a University of Michigan physician later told her he couldn’t find the disease — all he saw was a burned-out throat.
“To this day, I still don’t know if I had cancer,” she said. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
Some of Fata’s former patients, such as Teddy Howard, say they feel like they’ve been victimized again by being given minimal or no restitution from a $12 million fund set up to compensate those affected by the doctor’s crimes.
Howard, 57, who was given chemotherapy for cancer he didn’t have, said he asked for $55,000 but received nothing.
“If Fata pleaded guilty to my case, what claim do I need to prove?” he said.
Fata, 52, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for bilking Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Medicare of about $34 million by prescribing chemotherapy to cancer-free patients while over-medicating others at his five hematology and oncology clinics.
Howard, Teague and other former patients of Fata say they will never get back what he took from them.
Some lost homes, businesses and other aspects of their lives as pain, fatigue and other side effects prevented them from working. Others suffer permanent disabilities and emotional problems.
Teague doesn’t work anymore and has to keep tissues on hand to continually clear her throat of the mucus that builds up as a result of the radiation Fata gave her.
“I have to bring my mucus up or I’ll choke to death,” she said.
She said she didn’t seek money from the restitution fund because she didn’t want to be bothered with it.
Robert Sobieray, 65, of Milford was granted $25,000 from the fund but is still trying to raise money to replace his teeth, which he says he lost because of an iron supplement, Zometa, and chemotherapy that Fata prescribed to him for a cancer he didn’t have. So far, Sobieray has received more than $7,500 in donations through GoFundMe.
For years, the same question has gnawed at Sobieray: “Why me? What did I ever do to him?”
Sobieray said he was referred to Fata in 2010 after having back surgery, and that the oncologist told him a CAT scan indicated possible cancer. After a bone marrow biopsy, Fata diagnosed Sobieray as having multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer.
He said Fata told him he would need to take Zometa every 28 to 30 days for the rest of his life.
Sobieray, an Army veteran, got so sick from the chemicals pumped into his body that he could no longer do his job at an auto supplier. His wife lost her job at a Pontiac hospital because she was too exhausted from taking care of him.
After Fata’s arrest in August 2013, Sobieray saw another oncologist who told him he did not have cancer. At the same time, he began experiencing jaw pain and his teeth began breaking and falling out.
“I was in a state of shock when I found out I didn’t have cancer,” Sobieray said. “It ruined me financially.”
Distrustful of doctors
Howard gets angry talking about the chain of events that began with a routine physical exam in late 2011.
The Clinton Township man was referred by his primary care doctor to Fata, a hematologist who specialized in blood diseases, for a complete blood count.
Fata told Howard the test showed he had a blood cancer. The oncologist conducted a bone marrow biopsy, boring into Howard’s hip without anesthesia while two nurses held him down.
“I have played football and (performed) martial arts, but that was the worst pain,” Howard said. “You could hear me hollering downtown.”
Fata told his patient the test had confirmed the cancer diagnosis and ordered grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Believing he was about to die, Howard started putting together his final arrangements and funeral plans.
Howard had no idea that the chemicals coursing through his veins would destroy his liver, forcing him to undergo an organ transplant.
The former financial analyst for Health Alliance Plan tried to keep working, but his persistent illnesses and the potent chemotherapy kept him in bed most days. Howard is now receiving disability payments but is barely getting by, he said.
He remains haunted by the knowledge that he didn’t have cancer and never needed chemotherapy.
“I’m pissed. How do you live with the knowledge and the doctor was killing you, knowing you could have died,” Howard said. “I’m hurting. I didn’t do it to myself. I want to talk as loud and hard so no one else has to go through this again.”
Howard, like Sobieray, is hoping the kindness of others will help him pay off mounting medical bills — $40,000 in his case. Howard has created a page on youcaring.com, with a goal of raising $25,000. He has raised $600 so far.
Howard and other former Fata patients say they are leery of doctors after what happened to them.
“I don’t trust anyone with a white coat,” he said.
Angry at the system
Howard said he’s one of about a dozen patients who were among the first to talk to federal investigators about the case against Fata.
He said said he feels the government walked away from those who helped prosecutors investigate Fata, who pleaded guilty in fall 2014, by not providing sufficient restitution.
“We’re victims again,” he said. “We’re victims of the system now.”
About 74 percent of the 700 people who have applied for restitution through the Fata claims website have received preliminary approval, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.
“The victims’ wish to have all restitution requests paid in full is of course understandable,” the office said in a news release this month. “However, a federal statute and court orders require that that only certain categories of requests can be paid, and require that specific documentation be submitted to support eligible requests.”
The $12 million fund was set up to reimburse former patients or their loved ones for funeral costs and other out-of-pocket expenses using money and other assets from Fata.
Receipts and other paperwork were required to obtain the funds. But some former patients say they no longer have some of the mandatory documentation. Others complain the reimbursements should have included restitution for “pain and suffering” as well as lost wages.
Geraldine Smith Parkin, who organized a support group for former patients and their families, says the stories of heartache, fear and financial ruin are common among Fata’s former patients and their loved ones.
“We meet a lot of great folks (and) every story I hear makes me want to dig my feet in deeper to find out how (and) why this ever happened,” said Parkin. “Insurance companies have audits in place that should have sent up red flags, pharmaceutical companies should (have) questioned why he was purchasing double (and) triple the amount of meds compared to other cancer doctors.”
Parkin’s husband, Tim, 56, was over-treated for his cancer by Fata. The couple also faced financial setbacks because of Tim’s steadily increasing illnesses as a result of being given too much medicine.
Tim Parkin, who worked for a pallet company, has been unemployed since July 2015.
“This is a huge blow ’cause he can’t support his family,” said Geraldine Smith Parkin. “This, at times, has caused depression.”
Parkin said her husband lives with the fear of the unknown about Fata’s treatments.
“He tells me all the time that he never knows if he’ll wake up the next morning,” Parkin said. “He lives with this fear ’cause of all the poison he was given. No one knows what effects they will suffer now, later or in the future. He hasn’t even went back for his five-year PET scan ’cause he has no insurance.”
The couple, who live in Davison, lost their home and haven’t been able to buy another because of their financial troubles.
“I’m so glad I still have Tim, but I miss having our own home with a yard,” Parkin said. “I hate that we live with the fear of the unknown.”
She said the couple was turned down for restitution funds but could get $50,000 through a civil lawsuit.
St. Clair County resident Michael Ureel was referred to Fata in 2006 for heart problems because the popular cancer doctor also was a hematologist. Fata came highly recommended to Ureel, who had suffered several heart attacks.
“He was one of the best,” Ureel said. “He was cutting edge.”
Michael Ureel, 45, of Richmond MI, was treated by Dr. Farid Fata for 11 years for leukemia which he does not have. Viviana Pernot, Special to The Detroit News
Fata diagnosed Ureel with leukemia and strongly discouraged the former probation officer from seeking a second opinion at the University of Michigan. Years later, Ureel learned the shocking truth: He never had cancer.
Ureel, 44, a father of one, also felt financial losses.
“I lost my home. I couldn’t work,” he said. “I had to start all over again.”
He said he did not qualify for restitution because he had “great insurance.”
Ureel now sees a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic for his persistent heart problems. While he’s angry and doesn’t forgive what Fata did to him, he tries to look at the brighter side of things.
“Life is the most precious thing,” Ureel said. “I’m alive. I’m here, and I’m above ground.”