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He went to jail as a fake doctor. Now he’s a real one: The saga of Adam Litwin, MD

Dr. Adam Litwin
Dr. Adam Litwin stands in a hall at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago.
(Pinar Istek / For The Times)

Wearing a surgical gown and a mask, 9-year-old Adam Litwin watched in awe as his grandfather, a podiatrist, mended a fractured foot.

“I was just mesmerized,” Litwin recalled. “I literally knew from that moment on that there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life.”

He began to ask for medical posters and textbooks for his birthday. He had his own stethoscope. In his teens he wore a beeper and paged himself, pretending the hospital needed him to consult on a patient.

Decades later, Litwin, now 47, has finally achieved his dream. He graduated from a medical school in the Caribbean last year and passed the final board exam required to be a doctor.

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Though Litwin must still complete some training and licensing before he can treat patients on his own, he is an MD in the United States.

But to accomplish his goal, he first had to get past the time 20 years ago when he went to jail — for impersonating a doctor at UCLA.

The way Litwin tells it, he ended up at UCLA because he was blinded by his love of medicine.

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“Have you ever wanted something so badly in your life, and you knew you were never going to get it? What it would be like, what it would feel like to be that person, even if just one day?” Litwin said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Chicago, Litwin chats over pizza at his favorite restaurant. It is one of several interviews he gave for this article, saying he hoped to explain his efforts over the last several years to redeem himself.

Litwin is a tall, middle-aged man with dark, expressive eyes. He loves to use air quotes. He cringes when he talks about what happened at UCLA, often covering his face with his hand as if to hide his shame.

Adam Litwin
“With people who impersonate doctors, how many people end up becoming myself?” Dr. Adam Litwin said. “You’re looking at him.”
(Pinar Istek / For The Times)

Litwin grew up in a suburb of San Jose. A friend from that time, Marc Silver, said that through high school Litwin “would just bring up medicine all the time.” If you said your toe hurt, Litwin would rattle off possible diagnoses, he said.

After high school, Litwin enrolled at San Jose State, then transferred to St. Louis University because it offered a pre-med program in which students interacted with patients. The clinical rotations were “probably the happiest I had ever been,” Litwin said.

But when they ended, he said, he felt depressed and couldn’t concentrate on his schoolwork. Litwin dropped out of college, and in 1998, he decided to move to the San Fernando Valley for a change of scenery.

Litwin said he felt awful that he would never be able to become a physician. But he still loved medicine, he said, and began poring over textbooks in UCLA’s medical library.

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At some point, someone mistook him for a resident and he didn’t correct them, he said. Instead, he made up a backstory that he began to widely share: He was a surgery resident who had recently transferred from a nearby hospital.

Litwin was 26, about the same age as most doctors-in-training. For months, he fooled them.

He ate lunch in the cafeteria at UCLA Medical Center and watched doctors perform complicated surgeries, allowed because senior doctors thought he was a physician.

He parked his car in the doctors’ lot using a parking pass he pilfered from another physician. He began hanging out in the residents’ lounge after he stole a key to enter. He sometimes even slept in the on-call rooms when a case stretched late into the night.

But his disguise was far from perfect. Litwin wore a lab coat unlike anyone else’s: It carried a silk-screened picture of his face and name.

“Personally, I would’ve thought that if you were trying to blend in ... you wouldn’t have your picture on your white coat,” said Mark Lambert, a now-retired deputy city attorney who prosecuted the case in 2000.

Litwin said he had gotten the coat for free at a pharmaceutical conference and wore it at UCLA because it was the only one he had.

“People were coming up to me asking, ‘Adam, where did you get that coat? Where can I get one? I want one. It’s so cool,’” he remembered.

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Litwin said he arrived at UCLA every day about 5:30 a.m. to do rounds with residents. But it’s unclear exactly how many days Litwin spent at the hospital — he claimed he was there nine months, though prosecutors said six — and what he did there.

Small groups of residents see patients together, and they all know one another, said Dr. Rajabrata Sarkar, a vascular surgeon who trained at UCLA and was chief resident in 1998.

“The other residents would be like, ‘I’ve never met you — what program are you in?’” said Sarkar, who didn’t know Litwin. “You might get away with it for a day or two ... but the idea that you masqueraded as a physician on rounds for months? I find it hard to believe.”

Litwin said he made a few friends at UCLA, but could not remember their names. The Times contacted several dozen people who were UCLA residents in the late 1990s and all either said they did not remember Litwin or declined to be interviewed.

Litwin said that throughout his time at UCLA, he was careful to never touch or treat a patient. Once, a physician asked him to scrub in on a surgery he was observing and Litwin said he was late for clinic and raced out of the operating room, he recalled.

Still, Litwin said that when supervising doctors caught a glimpse of his medical acumen, they were impressed.

“If I was ever asked a question it would be like” — Litwin snapped his fingers three times — “I would be able to give the answer.”

But the charade didn’t last. His unusual white coat raised suspicion. Litwin also drew the attention of a pharmacist when he forged prescriptions for cough remedies and tranquilizers in the name of another UCLA physician who shared his surname, according to a Times article from 2000. Litwin says he wrote the prescriptions to help a friend.

A medical center supervisor also noticed that she could never read Litwin’s ID badge because it was covered with a meal ticket. She checked the resident roster.

In June 1999, security guards entered the doctors’ lounge, looking for Litwin. They escorted him to his car. Litwin knew the gig was up.

“My house of cards wasn’t falling, it had collapsed,” he said.

Inside his car, police found a scalpel, X-rays and orders for medicine.

In the UCLA doctors’ parking lot, police handcuffed and arrested Litwin.

A year later, at age 28, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors: forging a prescription, impersonating a doctor and stealing state property. He was sentenced to six months of psychiatric counseling and two months in jail, which Litwin said he served at the Azusa city lockup.

Litwin moved home to the Bay Area. He went to therapy for longer than mandated by the court and dealt with what he said are his narcissistic tendencies and low self-esteem.

From then on, he has been reformed, he said. What happened at UCLA was an aberration, “my narcissism clearly got away from me,” he said.

“Quote me. Write this. If I could just get you to write one thing,” Litwin said over pizza. “It is a very wise man who learns from his mistakes and a very stupid one who doesn’t. Remember that. I have learned from my mistakes and that’s why there’s no chance that anything like that could or would ever happen again.”

For a few years after his conviction in 2000, he said, he ran a healthcare consulting company with his grandfather, where he kept the books while staying away from the medicine.

But Litwin still yearned to be a doctor.

In 2006, he married Lisa Viens. When they met through mutual friends, Litwin was introduced by his nickname, “Doc.” Litwin claimed he was a cardiologist.

“I’m like, ‘You look awfully young to be a cardiologist,” said Viens, whose divorce from Litwin was finalized in 2010. “I thought, ‘Gosh, doesn’t that take a long time?’”

As he approached 40, Litwin decided to stop playing doctor. In 2012, he enrolled in St. James School of Medicine on the island of Bonaire.

“My love and my passion for medicine persevered and I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is my dream,’” he said.

He graduated from medical school last year, according to a school official, and now lives in Chicago, where he moved to complete his third- and fourth-year medical school rotations, some of which were at Cook County hospitals, he said. He passed all four exams that doctors are required to take to apply for a medical license.

Sitting in the restaurant, Litwin pinches his arm through his shirtsleeve. He is a doctor now.

“With people who impersonate doctors, how many people end up becoming myself?” Litwin said. “You’re looking at him.”

But his past continues to impede him.

Missouri’s medical board denied his application for a license last year, saying it did not believe he could have spent so much time pretending to be a resident at UCLA and not have treated patients.

“The lack of complete forthrightness about the incident in the UCLA Medical Center reflected negatively on your credibility and weighed against a finding of sufficient rehabilitation,” the denial letter reads.

Litwin is appealing the decision.

Lambert, the retired prosecutor, said investigators never found evidence that Litwin cared for patients. He said he hopes Litwin is treated fairly as he tries to become a fully licensed doctor.

“We send someone to counseling and they get punished, and the hope is that they’re rehabilitated, so I would hope that he has been rehabilitated,” Lambert said. “I have no ill will toward him whatsoever.”

Last fall, Litwin applied to residency programs in surgery and family medicine.

Litwin said that during his residency interviews he explained what happened at UCLA and his subsequent transformation.

But documents Litwin had to include in his application are sullied by his past.

In early 1998, before his UCLA stunt, Litwin was caught shoplifting. He walked out of a store with a coat, he said.

When his lawyer asked for a letter showing good character, Litwin forged one. He penned a letter as though he were the head of the National Board of Medical Examiners, saying Litwin had scored in the 96th percentile on a medical board exam, according to records from the agency obtained by The Times.

When the letter was identified as a fake, police sent it to the medical examiners board to keep on file.

So 15 years later, when Litwin had legitimately entered medical school and began to take his board exams in 2014, the agency flagged his scores.

Litwin was called in for a hearing to explain his past. The agency ultimately decided to let his scores stand.

But the bottom of his official exam score document notes that “this individual engaged in irregular behavior,” with a memo explaining the details of the UCLA incident and the forged letter.

In March, Litwin failed to be accepted into a residency program.

He said he will reapply to residency training next year and will consider switching to psychiatry programs, which graduates of foreign medical schools are more often accepted into, according to national residency data.

“I have had to overcome obstacles that would’ve sunken the vast majority of people in this world,” Litwin said. “I have persevered and I have struggled to be who and where I am today way too much and come much too far to give up now.”

Dr. Anupam Jena, a Harvard medical school professor who studies the physician workforce, said Litwin’s biggest impediment may not be his past — having a minor crime, such as a DUI, on an applicant’s record is not uncommon, he said — but the fact that he went to medical school out of the country.

Fewer than 60% of international medical graduates matched into residency this year, compared with 94% of U.S. graduates.

“It’s not like this is a violent crime he committed — it’s a strange crime,” Jena said. “I could certainly imagine a residency program giving him a shot.”

If Litwin joins a psychiatry program next year, he would be at least 52 when he could begin practicing on his own.

Even without residency, Litwin could advise pharmaceutical or health insurance companies. He could work in hospital administration or do medical research.

Litwin knows his options, but he doesn’t like them, he said. He longs to see patients.

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