Doctor Becomes Symbol in Affirmative Action Debate
Dr. Patrick Chavis, to his admirers, was not just a successful black doctor: He was a symbol of what was right and just about affirmative action.
Admitted to UC Davis Medical School in 1973 under a special minority program later successfully challenged by white applicant Allan Bakke, Chavis made it his mission to return to the area where he grew up, making his home in Compton and his obstetrical practice in Lynwood.
“I went to medical school with the intent of coming back to South-Central,” said Chavis, 45. “I could have gotten a home in Palos Verdes, but these are the people I choose to live and work with. They are like my mother and my father.”
In glowing media profiles, he came across as a dedicated urban soldier, and affirmative action proponents--including U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and state Sen. Tom Hayden--publicly embraced his example.
Just two weeks ago, Eva Patterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights touted Chavis’ achievements as a physician over those of Bakke, a Minnesota anesthesiologist. Her implication: Affirmative action had favored the best man.
It turned out to be an unfortunate example. Late this spring, the Medical Board of California accused Chavis of seriously injuring two patients and stashing them at different times in his home, and of abandoning a third woman, groggy from surgery, in his office. Hours later, that patient, Tammaria Cotton, 43, died at a Lynwood hospital. The board suspended his license to practice pending a hearing that may end his career.
In the past several weeks, as the debate simmered over implementation of California’s anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, some conservatives adopted Chavis as a symbol of their own--representing the policy’s dangers. “Give me preferences and give me death,” read the newsletter of one conservative think tank, Pacific Research Institute. “Affirmative Action Can Be Fatal,” declared the headline over Jeff Jacoby’s column in the Boston Globe.
Yet the case also has signaled, to some on both sides of the debate over affirmative action, the perils of making issues out of individuals.
“I don’t think the argument rises or falls on one--or on a handful--of examples,” said Richard Yarborough, director of the Center for African American studies at UCLA. “That is the basis of stereotyping of all kinds, when you take one case and try to explode it into a general rule.”
“There is certainly a problem in using single cases,” said Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a public policy research organization in Washington. But she contends that affirmative action proponents “can’t have it both ways.”
“They want to say that [Chavis] should be held up as all that’s good and wholesome about affirmative action when it looks like he’s doing well, but when he fails, they don’t take responsibility for that.”
Chavis is not helping to quell the controversy. Even now, he is the first to say his race is relevant. He says he’s still a good example of the promise of affirmative action, but also is a victim of racist backlash against outspoken minorities.
“They want to hang me,” he said, referring to “an unholy alliance” among his critics. “It’s a lynching.”
In his first extensive interview since the suspension, Chavis described the challenges of his youth, living with four siblings on welfare and on what his mother could earn as a beautician. He spoke of the benefits he brought back to South-Central as a doctor.
“I don’t mean to boast, but I’m somewhat of a hero in the community,” he said.
With the same vigor he showed in media interviews years ago, defending the 16-slot affirmative action program at UC Davis Medical School, he defended his performance as a physician over the years. He denied any wrongdoing.
In a rapid-fire speech that ricocheted from one topic to the next, he blamed his downfall on the hospital where his patients were treated, a patient’s attorney, the Medical Board of California, the state attorney general’s office and a television station. For the first time, he even accused Cotton’s husband of “interference” in his wife’s care--by lifting her into a wheelchair after surgery--saying he should be accused of “second-degree murder, if not first-degree murder.”
Jimmy Cotton could not be reached for comment, but in the past has said he went from being frantic to stunned as his wife bled to death after being abandoned by Chavis. The doctor was accused by the Medical Board of gross negligence in her June 1996 death.
Besides alleging racism by white hospital administrators, Chavis contends he is the victim of St. Francis Medical Center’s jealousy of his popularity with patients, the hospital’s aversion to his performing abortions and the hospital’s fear of being sued for its own alleged medical mistakes in the care of Chavis’ patients.
But racism--including an alleged backlash for his vocal support of minority employees at St. Francis--is the main charge. “They don’t do this to white people,” he said.
St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, which reported allegations of mistreatment by Chavis to the Medical Board after removing him from the medical staff, declined to comment specifically on Chavis’ allegations, citing confidentiality obligations in its review of physicians.
“St. Francis has adhered, without exception, to its legal and ethical obligations to Dr. Chavis, as well as to the safety and well-being of our community,” the hospital said in a prepared statement.
In the past, Chavis’ allegations of racism have received some support. In September 1993, he won $1.1 million in damages in a jury trial against Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in a racial discrimination case. A judge overturned the verdict, however, and the case was never refiled.
In this latest controversy, some of Chavis’ patients are steadfast in their support, picketing St. Francis and petitioning authorities on his behalf.
“A lot of times in a community, where there is a person of a different race, when the person is trying to do their best, some people feel they want to knock him down,” said Duana Pierce, 44, of Watts, who received two liposuction treatments from Chavis and whose two children were delivered by him.
Chavis and his supporters say he brought to their communities some things they hadn’t had before: He made house calls, he installed a gymnasium in his office so women could burn off “baby fat” and he counseled them like a social worker.
He branched into liposuction, he said, not for money or to make overweight women “skinny,” but to restore their self-esteem. He charged low rates, his patients say, and let them pay as they could. He picked patients up and took them home in limousines--to make them feel special, he said.
“He’s dedicated to poor people,” said Unicca Chapman, 29, who had two children delivered by Chavis. “There are not as many good doctors for poor people. He’s not after your insurance . . . not in and out. He comes back, he sits down and he makes sure you are secure about what you’re having done.”
To those who have questioned Chavis’ foray into liposuction--an increasingly popular and potentially lucrative area of medicine--he responds: “Why shouldn’t people who are not rich be able to participate in some of the same things rich people have?”
He is not board certified as a plastic surgeon, but he is not required to be. In fact, he is part of an influx of nonspecialists into cosmetic surgery, which has drawn some concern from experts. Chavis said he prepared himself to do liposuction in a four-day course in Beverly Hills and has since worked on about 300 patients.
The doctor’s explanations for his situation, so far, have not swayed authorities.
Chavis’ “conduct demonstrates an inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician,” Administrative Law Judge Samuel D. Reyes wrote in June, ordering the emergency suspension of Chavis’ license.
“His failure in this regard, although occurring only with lipectomy patients, is so fundamental that it evidences the inability to safely practice in other areas of medicine.”
Medical Board authorities have questioned Chavis’ mental state, citing a sworn declaration by a psychiatrist who said he may suffer from a "[mental] impairment which poses a danger to his patients.” Chavis said he was not examined by the psychiatrist, who made his comments based on Medical Board records. Chavis’ licensing hearing begins in October.
For all the media coverage the case has received, and for all the outrage it has engendered from conservative forces, some supporters of affirmative action still say Chavis demonstrated some of the policy’s pluses.
Constance L. Rice, an attorney with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, insisted that the doctor’s 20 years of service as an obstetrician-gynecologist in his community should count for something. Affirmative action detractors are “ignoring this man’s track record in his specialty,” she said. “They want to pretend like this guy got out of medical school and killed somebody.”
When a white male doctor gets in trouble, Rice said, no one goes back and questions whether he ought to have been admitted to medical school. And she questioned the narrow focus on medical school admission: Affirmative action gets a student in, she said, but it doesn’t get him out. It does not assure passage of board exams, a successful medical residency or a successful practice. All those things, she said, depend on an individual’s demonstrated ability and qualifications.
Several critics of affirmative action said they would never have thought to make an example of Chavis if the pro-preference forces hadn’t made him their “poster boy.”
“Those of us . . . who talk about Chavis . . . it’s mainly because of those on the other side have pushed [him] as a shining example” of success, said Lance T. Izumi, author of the “give me preferences and give me death” article.
Izumi went on to cite Chavis as “an egregious example of what happens when you admit people not based on merit measures.”
All this cross-fire in the days of debate over implementation of Proposition 209, which went into effect last week, leaves little room for the sophisticated, complex discussion that affirmative action deserves, some observers complain. When individuals become symbols, they say, the quality of the discourse deteriorates.
“It brings out the emotions, brings out the passions. . . . It continues to divide along the fault lines, " said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles political analyst and an author on race relations. “We make this a point of eternal friction.”
Times education writer Amy Wallace contributed to this story.