Local women among many misdiagnosed with MS, lawsuit says
DENVER — On July 17, 2007, Frisco resident Brenda Culhane went to see neurologist Dr. Gary Weiss at his medical practice on Bighorn Road in Vail. She complained of upper extremity weakness, and Weiss recommended an MRI, an EEG and an EMG of her brain and upper extremities. The next month, Weiss had grim news: Culhane had multiple sclerosis, an incurable neurodegenerative disease.
Eagle County resident Mercedes Aragon went to see Weiss on Jul 20, 2009, with neck pain and dizziness. Weiss began treating her for multiple sclerosis.
Both women sued Weiss in Denver U.S. District Court. Denver attorneys James Puga and Alex Wilschke are handling both cases.
Two patients, two lawsuits
According to Culhane’s lawsuit, Weiss began treating her with monthly injections of Tysabri, a powerful drug that is used to control, but not cure, MS symptoms. The drug is highly therapeutic for MS patients but carries a serious risk of causing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a brain infection that is usually fatal. Because of this, the FDA only approves the use of Tysabri for patients with MS or Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease.
For over nine years, Culhane received monthly infusions of the drug as prescribed by Weiss and underwent regular MRIs to monitor her treatment. She, however, does not have MS. Nor do the as many as 20 other people Weiss allegedly misdiagnosed and injected with a powerful, potentially dangerous drug.
According to a separate lawsuit, Weiss sold his Vail practice for $1.34 million in 2013, just over a year after the Colorado Medical Board opened disciplinary proceedings against him. In a settlement deal, he agreed to let his Colorado medical license expire and never again practice medicine in the state. He has since opened a neurology practice in Palm Bay, Florida, where he continues to treat MS patients.
He could not be immediately reached for comment. His attorney declined to speak on the record.
Aragon’s lawsuit says Weiss ordered another MRI with his own machine. That machine “was not adequate for the diagnostic uses he represented to his patients,” the lawsuit says.
In addition, Weiss did not order all necessary tests, including a cerebral spinal fluid analysis. He diagnosed Aragon with relapsing, remitting MS, The Denver Post reported.
Aragon received continuous treatment from Weiss for MS for five years, during which time she underwent 23 MRIs, which showed no change over time, the Post reported.
Some of the symptoms she experienced because of the MS treatments included “full-body” pain and frequent flu-like symptoms. She began taking medications for sleep deprivation and depression, believing that she would not be able to care for her children, the lawsuit says. Her marriage was also affected, the Post reported.
The following year, Pithan told Aragon he was not convinced she had MS. He referred her to Dr. Simon Oh, who performed a cerebral spinal fluid analysis. He determined she did not have MS.
A radiologist, Dr. Scott Anderson, reviewed MRIs and determined that her condition was related to aging, the Post reported.
A medical board inquiry — and a quick exit
Weiss earned his medical degree from Northwestern University and afterward trained at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He was licensed to practice medicine in Colorado in December 1996, but it is not clear when he first opened Weiss Medical Associates in Vail. Business was good, it seems, as he eventually expanded his operation to Glenwood Springs, citing robust growth.
According to documents from a Colorado Medical Board investigation into Weiss initiated in 2012, he diagnosed an unnamed patient with MS in 2009 and began treating her with Tysabri. The documents note that doctors must carefully monitor patients treated with this drug for signs of PML, watching for signs of cognitive impairment or brain lesions on MRI scans.
In September 2010, the patient’s daughter told Weiss her mother was “acting differently and becoming forgetful.” He failed to notice a new brain lesion in two subsequent MRIs. After a third MRI, in June 2011, he noticed the lesion and diagnosed the patient with PML.
An inquiry panel with the Colorado Medical Board was prepared to charge him with unprofessional conduct, censuring him for continuing to treat the patient with Tysabri — despite signs of PML — and for missing a telltale brain lesion twice. Weiss agreed to the settlement that barred him from ever practicing again in Colorado in September 2014.
A year earlier, just months before he stopped practicing in late 2013 and while he was still under investigation, he sold his Vail practice to Dr. Mark Pithan for more than $1.34 million. According to a lawsuit filed by Pithan, a large percentage of Weiss Medical Associates’ profits came from performing the many MRI and EEG tests Weiss prescribed to his MS patients. It was a lucrative operation: Since MS is incurable but requires regular monitoring during treatment, a large portfolio of patients means a steady stream of imaging and treatment revenue.
As Pithan soon learned, however, many of the patients in his newly acquired practice did not even have MS.
A practice unravels
Shortly after purchasing Weiss Medical, Pithan referred Culhane to Dr. Enrique Alvarez of the University of Colorado Hospital for a second opinion on her MS diagnosis. She was shocked to learn that she did not have MS, but soon her relief turned to fury as she realized that all those appointments, infusions and brain scans for the past nine years were completely unnecessary.
On Aug. 19, she filed federal suit against Weiss, accusing him of negligence and claiming $75,000 in damages. (Another woman, represented by the same law firm as Culhane, separately filed suit against Weiss for misdiagnosing her). Culhane’s suit alleges that Weiss fraudulently represented her condition on at least six occasions and that he knew she did not have MS as far back as August 2007.
According Pithan’s own suit — which claims Weiss cooked his books to the tune of an extra $1 million to 1.2 million a year by performing unnecessary tests — many of Weiss’ former patients have since had their MS diagnoses overturned by other doctors, and Pithan claims to have personally overturned approximately 20 of them. The suit claims that Pithan is entitled to damages since he purchased Weiss Medical under the assumption that its financial health was not based on “improper, unnecessary, excessive and not medically acceptable actions.”
Pithan has since closed down Weiss’ former practice, citing the irreparable damage its founder had done to its credibility.
Weiss himself now operates a neurology practice in Palm Bay, Florida — also named Weiss Medical Associates. It is active and accepting patients, although he could not immediately be reached for comment. He is represented in his suit involving Pithan by Greenberg Traurig LLP of Denver. Weiss’ attorney filed a response to Pithan’s civil complaint, denying all of the allegations. A previous motion to dismiss the case was denied.
It would be really hard to spark a wildfire anywhere near Vail Mountain or Beaver Creek right now. Still, unattended campfires will always draw attention.