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Surgeon Puts Brave Face on Legal Woes

“I’m down and out in Newport Beach,” quips Michael Elam.

He’s no doubt “down"--losing your medical license after gaining national exposure as Phyllis Diller’s cosmetic surgeon will do that to you.

But “out”? Well . . . .

The 43-year-old Elam still has his gated Corona del Mar home and pays rent at his lavish Fashion Island offices. He is still a frequent guest at Orange County black-tie galas. And he now has time to play golf almost daily--"anywhere people invite me and pay for it,” he says.

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Not bad, Elam admits, for a doctor barred by the state more than a year ago from practicing medicine because of charges of malpractice and fraud.

Still, the man who once boasted an annual income of more than $1 million through his cosmetic surgery practice and a line of skin products says he is now living off his savings and “loans from friends.” And he says he may soon be broke--if he doesn’t get his license back.

Elam has already gotten it back once in court--only to lose it again--and faces his latest legal battle next month in Sacramento Superior Court to try to overturn a decision by the Medical Board of California barring him indefinitely from seeing patients and practicing medicine in this state.

In August, 1990, the medical board delivered the harshest punishment available against Elam, finding that he was both “dishonest” and “a dangerous person to be licensed as a physician and a surgeon.” That followed an administrative hearing featuring allegations that Elam botched a tummy tuck and filed $6,000 in bogus insurance claims.

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The most emotional testimony came from a former Mrs. California and Mrs. America runner-up, Bonnie Luebke of Orange County, then 49, who went to Elam in 1984 for an eyelid tuck. Elam told her he could “make her look 30 again” through cheek implants and other facial surgery. Even after she rejected the idea, he drugged her and performed the procedures anyway, Luebke testified.

But in briefs filed in Sacramento, Elam and his attorney argue that the medical board cited claims about the doctor that were never even explored at his hearing, and they blame the loss of his license on a running feud with the plastic surgery community in Orange County.

(In the 1980s, Elam successfully sued the Orange County Medical Assn. to prod it into recognizing and referring patients to cosmetic surgeons, who have different credentials and training than plastic surgeons.)

“It is an absolute travesty of justice to take a doctor’s license away because other professionals in the community are jealous or because they disagree on the treatments which are legitimately the subject of widespread medical debate,” Elam’s brief asserts.

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His Sacramento hearing is tentatively set for Jan. 10. “I want to be vindicated,” he says.

State officials don’t see that happening.

“I expect that we’ll be upheld,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Barry Ladendorf, who represented the state in its efforts to take away Elam’s license. “I’d be flabbergasted if the (medical board) order was overturned.”

Meanwhile, Elam says, he has been playing a lot of golf, tending to “business” at his office--but not seeing patients--and spending more time with his 3-year-old daughter. He has also been reviewing at length the thick sheaf of legal papers that will help determine his professional future.

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Elam maintains he did nothing wrong; his biggest mistake, he says, was initially getting a “bad lawyer” to represent him.

Elam has collected letters from several dozen friends and colleagues praising his skills as a surgeon. And his new lawyer has called him “the preeminent plastic surgeon in the United States.”

In fact, Elam was certified as a cosmetic surgeon, not a plastic surgeon, but the testimony to his stature still applies: Until just a few years ago, he headed several national cosmetic surgery associations, was widely seen on television promoting his skin-care products and boasted a long list of star clients that included Diller.

Today, Elam is philosophical--even optimistic--about “my demise.”

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“Life deals you funny hands sometimes,” he says. “I got screwed. I can’t last forever not working. But if you’re not a strong person, you don’t get to the top to begin with. . . .”

And if Elam doesn’t get his license back?

“I don’t know what I’d do. . . . You can’t start over at 43,” he says. “But I’ll have to tackle that problem if it comes. If you worry about it, you don’t get out of bed in the morning.”


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