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A PAIN IN THE NECK

Wendy's parents sued the hospital for negligence and received an out-of-court settlement. Dr. Stjernholm wasn't named as a defendant. But in 1983 the hospital's lawyer notified the chiropractic examiners board that Wendy had seen him the fateful day she was admitted to the hospital and recommended that they investigate. In April 1986--six years after the original incident--the board charged him with negligence.

Insulted, Dr. Stjernholm launched an aggressive campaign of his own. "We don't go looking for trouble," he explains. "But we sure respond to it." He dug up Breckenridge police records showing that the board's investigator at the time had been arrested for suspected cocaine use and sent them to the governor. (The chief investigator for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies says that the woman no longer works for him--although he adds that she did not leave because of Dr. Stjernholm's counter-investigation.)

Throughout the investigation, Dr. Stjernholm had a difficult time avoiding controversy. In 1986, while he was its president, the Colorado Chiropractic Council filed a lawsuit against several local hospitals demanding its members be given medical privileges. (The suit petered out after some of the hospitals agreed to allow the chiropractors to treat inpatients.)

And several years before that Dr. Stjernholm had attracted attention when a Commerce City couple took their son to him for treatment of jaundice. The Adams County Social Services Department was unsure that a chiropractor was the appropriate health professional to treat the child. When it learned of the incident, the county temporarily relieved the parents of their son.

The parents complained that the agency had deprived them of their right to choose their doctor. Dr. Stjernholm, meanwhile, was pleased to announce that publicity from the case had helped his practice rather than hurt it. "That's what happens when you are one of the most successful chiropractors in the state," he informed the Rocky Mountain News, adding, promotionally, "I've had some amazing results."

Despite the dire implications of malpractice, in October 1987 an administrative law judge found only that Dr. Stjernholm had not kept thorough records. (He claimed he referred Wendy Holland to a medical doctor, but there was no such notation in her chart.) The board placed him on a six-month suspension and ordered him to find another chiropractor to monitor his record-keeping. Today, Dr. Stjernholm attributes the peer censure from the outgoing president of the Colorado Chiropractic Association to professional jealousy.

By 1989 Dr. Stjernholm had yet to hire a records monitor. (Finding volunteers proved tricky. At one time the board thought it had found two chiropractors willing to help. But the day after they were appointed, Dr. Stjernholm sent them letters pointing out that he was suing the board and that they might be called on to testify later. Both men informed the board they had reconsidered and had decided not to monitor Dr. Stjernholm's records.)

In September 1989 the state decided it had done enough waiting. Noting that it was now nearly two years after it had ordered him to hire a records monitor, the Board of Chiropractic Examiners suspended Dr. Stjernholm's license to practice for three months.

The suspension came and went without too much disruption--he hired a temporary associate so his offices could remain open. Also, Dr. Stjernholm prepared a short lecture:

A Miscarriage of Justice. In October 1989 Dr. Stjernholm produced a 45-minute video, during which he urged his patients to sign a petition demanding a grand-jury investigation of the Board of Chiropractic Examiners and the Attorney General. The tape (still available for distribution) ran on a continuous loop during office hours throughout his suspension.

The punishment ended in early 1990. But that September the board determined it had evidence Dr. Stjernholm had continued practicing chiropractic during his suspension. One of the complaints to the Board of Chiropractic Examiners came from Dr. J. Eric Griffiths--who at the time was president of the board. He claimed one of his patients told him she was treated by Dr. Stjernholm during the time he was suspended. (Dr. Griffiths did not return phone calls from Westword.)

In December 1990 a fed-up Board of Chiropractic Examiners voted to suspend Dr. Stjernholm's license again, this time for "willful and deliberate violation of the Chiropractic Practice Act." Dr. Stjernholm appealed the decision. And, mostly, he won.

Much of the case against Dr. Stjernholm hinged on the testimony of a chiropractor he'd hired to cover for him while he was suspended the first time. Dr. Patrick Morries told state investigators he had witnessed Dr. Stjernholm treat four patients while his license was suspended.

Unfortunately for Morries, the administrative law judge didn't believe him. The judge noted that Morries hadn't complained until he'd been fired by Dr. Stjernholm. But the main reason for the judge's ruling was the patients themselves. One by one, the four testified they'd never been treated by Dr. Stjernholm between December 1989 and February 1990. (Morries, who today practices in northwest Denver, declines to comment.)

The judge was not entirely supportive of Dr. Stjernholm. For instance, in her June 1991 opinion she noted that he hadn't exactly cooperated with the board. "As a factual conclusion...the Court would find that Dr. Stjernholm's approach to the disciplinary hearings against him can be reasonably described as obstructionist," she wrote.

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