When Geno Marcovici went into the hair-plug business last year, he didn't give much thought to demographics. "I could have really narrowed it down," he recalls. "But then I realized it was simple. Who wants a hair transplant? A man. We see millionaires from Aspen and dishwashers from Mexico. Here's what it comes down to: Guys want hair."
But not just any hair. "Mine looks like Barbie-doll hair or rows of corn or picket fences," says James Artus of the hair coming out of his plugs. He communicates through a TTY phone operator because he is hearing-impaired. "The hair is hard and feels terrible. I complain, and the doctor tells me he sees nothing wrong with it. I go and have surgery twelve times and the balding gets worse. Can you believe that?"
Marcovici can. Over half of his business at Advanced Restoration Technologies is repairing botched hair plugs, he says. And at least half of those shoddy jobs, he adds, were the work of one man: a certain Dr. Robert Paunovich, who left Colorado nearly two years ago in order to take the extremely unusual step of repeating his medical residency training in Florida. After having practiced medicine, his way, for 23 years.
"We're seeing a steady stream of his clients," Marcovici says, "even though Dr. Paunovich hasn't been here in quite a while. It's unusual that a week goes by without us seeing someone who had his services and was not happy with them. Not that he's the only bad one. We see all kinds. Some is bad, some is real bad."
Artus's hair plugs are real bad. And all he wanted, he says, was hair.
"When I first saw the balding starting to happen, I tried to accept it, but it does not make me happy," he recalls. "I'd rather have full hair." Now 45 years old, Artus began losing his hair ten years ago. By 1991 he had worn a hairpiece for five years, but he hated it. His search for a more permanent solution led him to Ralph Carlocci, owner of Hair Unlimited, who set him up with Dr. Paunovich.
"I should have shopped around more," Artus says now, "but Ralph told me that Dr. Paunovich was one of the most experienced and one of the most fantastic doctors in the world, which is why I am so angry now."
Paunovich told him that four separate transplants would restore him to a complete head of hair, Artus says. During those procedures, Artus's own hair, taken from the lower back of his neck, would be implanted on the top and front of his head. "But I had the four surgeries and four scalp reductions," he says, "and it never looked anything but awful, and the grafts didn't grow, anyway." After paying $5,000 for Paunovich's work, he still owed another $5,000--and the doctor was telling him that he needed several additional operations. Meanwhile, Artus says, his scarred scalp sported rows of plugs that didn't fool anybody.
A visit to an attorney proved fruitless. "It seems to be a difficult thing to say whether Dr. Paunovich had gone against the standard of care, even if his was on the very low end of the curve," Artus says. "With hair plugs, what is the standard of care?"
"You gotta trust somebody," agrees Dale Peters, another recovering Paunovich client. "I did, and my hair looks like shit. I'm 31 now, and my baldness started getting bad when I was about 21. When I was probably 26, I went to this company, Hair Unlimited, and found out I could either do plugs or a stupid-looking wig."
Peters could not see himself in a stupid-looking wig--not at his construction job, not at the gym where he works out daily. And it seemed a good sign that Paunovich, too, was a weightlifter. "Not only that," Peters remembers, still impressed, "he had autographed pictures of Hulk Hogan on his wall! I guess he was, like, the main World Wrestling Foundation doctor or something."
Paunovich sat Peters down and gave it to him straight. "I understood that it was $2,000 a session and that I would need tons of work, about thirty sessions," Peters recalls. "Then he gave me a Valium and drilled my hair out of the back of my head and stuck it in the front. It looked awful, lumpy and bumpy, and I was covered with a big bandage like Sadam Salaam or somebody. He told me when the scabs fell off I would love it. Well, it was the worst thing I'd ever seen in my life. The plugs were way too far apart, and they never did take, either. I decided I couldn't go back."
Except to try to get his money. When that effort failed, he threatened both Paunovich and Carlocci. "I got pissed--I'm not gonna say I didn't," Peters says. "I told them if I ever saw them in the street, I'd pound them." Or something. Peters is still paying off the installment loan on his ugly plugs. "Hell, I owe $750," he says. "I'm still paying!"
Who isn't? After spending $5,000 on Paunovich plugs, Artus has spent $11,000 on Marcovici's hair-transplant specialist, Dr. Don Didocha of Detroit. That's a big chunk of change for a freelance housepainter, but Artus doesn't regret it. "The plugs are growing beautifully, the monthly payments are low, and I am very happy," he says.
Dale Peters has spent $16,000 on seven corrective Didocha surgeries and expects to be finished in June.
While waiting in the Advanced Restoration Technologies waiting room for another procedure, both men say they've met an assortment of former Paunovich patients. "Many of them complain and complain," Artus observes.
Not Richard McKinney, who also moved from Paunovich to ART. "The technology has changed since Paunovich left the state," he argues. "The only reason I didn't go back to Hair Unlimited was because I was so impressed with Geno. I mean--his hair plugs are so thick! On the other hand, a lot of the grafts Dr. Paunovich did for me definitely did not take, and that was upsetting. He told me 99 percent of them would. Who knew?"
McKinney looks at his Paunovich experience philosophically and remembers the doctor as a friendly, sympathetic guy. "I'm pretty into working out, and so was Paunovich," he recalls. "I knew he was Hulk Hogan's best friend and real into wrestling."
"Well, he and Hogan were friends, but not best friends," clarifies wrestling promoter Zane Bresloff, who considers Paunovich a friend and often saw him ringside. "He'd bring oxygen down to the arenas and hang out in case anyone needed medical attention. But we had so few injuries, he almost never needed to do anything."
Bresloff says he knows nothing of Paunovich's hair-plug practice, but he deplores those who would badmouth the good doctor. "He's a wonderful guy who's trying to get his life back together," adds Bresloff. "You know how it is."
Actually, no. Dr. Paunovich apparently gave several different versions of why he was leaving the state.
"He told me he was going down to Florida to be with his best friend, Hulk Hogan," says Ralph Carlocci. "He hasn't worked for us for a couple of years. He had been doing transplants for years. I have a whole volume full of people who've never complained."
Those folks would prefer to remain anonymous, Carlocci says. For that matter, "I don't want my name in the middle of this," he adds. "And if we did have some guys who were unhappy, well, I see people from other clinics who come to me for repairs, too, and I'm not gonna get into a mudslinging Denver battle. It could be real detrimental to my business."
So could a look at the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners' file on Dr. Paunovich, which hints at a varied and eventful medical career--none of it centering on hair-transplant surgery. According to the file, Paunovich became a licensed osteopath in 1970 and gravitated toward the fields of nutrition and weight loss. In 1988, following up on the complaint of another physician, the board found that Paunovich had "exercised substandard care" at two Weight Control Clinics--improperly prescribing amphetamines and inadequately supervising his staff. As a result of that complaint and the ensuing investigation, Paunovich agreed to divest himself of ownership in the clinic's parent company, RU2FAT, Inc., and was placed on three years' probation.
RU2FAT, Inc., ceased to exist in 1991. "He's not in the state," reports a surly female voice on the end of the phone line assigned to onetime RU2FAT vice-president and accountant Joseph Armitage. "He doesn't remember anything about RU2FAT. If you could find him, he'd be even ruder to you than I am now."
"That was our company," clarifies Debbie Cambronne, whose husband, Chad, served as RU2FAT's president. "Dr. Paunovich was one of our supervisors. There may have been some medication in the program, but that was up to the individual clinic."
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But in December 1989, just eighteen months after he'd been put on probation, Paunovich was back before the Board of Medical Examiners--accused of improperly prescribing various hormones. This time he was put on indefinite probation.
In October 1993 Paunovich informed the board that he planned to move to Florida to "take part in residency training." In response, the board agreed to lift all restrictions against him if he would "diligently pursue" his new training. Paunovich also agreed that he would not practice medicine in Colorado until he completed his second residency and obtained board certification from the state.
Not that Paunovich has any intention of coming back here. Reached by phone at the Bayside Medical family practice office in Palm Harbor, Florida, Paunovich says he has given up on both Colorado and hair-replacement surgery. "I'm liking family practice better," he explains. He does not want to discuss his unusual second residency training or his problems with the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners. But he is quick to say that he has trouble believing anyone would complain about his hair-replacement technique.
"I've been doing that for nineteen years," he says indignantly. "I've never had a complaint or a lawsuit filed. I'm a member of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgeons. I would say it sounds to me like sour grapes, and it's not fair.