Barry Saunders

Saunders: Doctor sued his former clinic – and won

Dr. Eric Rappaport doesn’t call his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease a disability. He calls it being “differently abled.”

Whatever one calls it, Rappaport thinks his mild version of the neurological disorder improved his doctoring skills and made him a better OB-GYN.

“In an odd sort of way,” he told me Tuesday, “I feel my illness made me a better doctor because it made me more compassionate. It forced me to slow down. It opened up my schedule so I had more time to spend talking to patients.”

His fellow partners at the clinic for which he worked, Raleigh Obstetrics and Gynecology Centre, felt otherwise. Three years after his diagnosis, Rappaport said, with incredulity and sadness heavy in his voice, he was “being attacked by” many of the doctors he had hired.

Rappaport sued last year, and a jury in August awarded him $871,000. Of that, $404,000 was for punitive damages. That’s a lot of lettuce whatever it’s for, but not enough to make up for being deprived of the one thing you’ve wanted to do since you were 8.

“I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was in third grade,” Rappaport said. “When I started medical school, I was absolutely sure I was going to be a general surgeon, but when I began my rotations. ... I realized I enjoyed developing long-term relationships with patients. General surgery didn’t lend itself to that.”

Being an OB-GYN did. “There are women in this town that I’ve taken care of for 25 years,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful career for me.”

No one at Raleigh OB/GYN Centre would comment Wednesday on the verdict.

Rappaport now volunteers at the Open Door Clinic – run by Urban Ministries of Raleigh – serving the underserved as he tries, he said, “to recover from the whole trauma of the lawsuit and trial.”

“From the time my Parkinson’s disease was diagnosed in 2007 to the end of ’09, they accommodated my disability quite well, made me feel I was cared about,” he said of his fellow doctors at Raleigh OB/GYN. “They acted toward me just the way I had hoped they would.”

How did Rappaport, 58, know the perception of him as “a valued member of the team” had changed?

“I noticed scheduling issues that struck me as odd,” he said. “I saw a patient on my schedule, and when I went back to check five minutes later, she was no longer on it. I thought maybe she’d canceled. When I asked the office manager, ‘Why is my schedule looking crazy all of a sudden?’ she said, ‘You’re not seeing patients anymore.’

“She said, ‘You were supposed to have been told by one of the partners,’” he recounted. After a “big fight” with one of the partners, another partner called him at home that night, he said. “He told me ‘Eric, consider this your six-month notice. ... After all, you’re just an employee; you’re not a partner anymore.’

“I said ‘The heck I’m not.’ That was the end” – at least of the era of good feelings between Rappaport and his colleagues.

Rappaport stayed, but said he felt his colleagues were trying to force him out, that efforts were being made “to discredit me. “They would criticize me in meetings, both my work and the way I wrote my charts. They were critical of some of the medical decisions I’d made, taking certain patients, that kind of thing.”

In 2011, some anonymous soul dropped a dime – pardon my 1970s lingo: I just watched “Shaft” for the 800th time – to the N.C. Medical Board complaining about Rappaport. The board concluded after its investigation that he didn’t pose any risk to patients.

That didn’t prevent him from being suspended by the clinic in August 2013. He filed suit in January 2014.

While Rappaport treats a lot of poor women at the Open Door Clinic who probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford his services, he said he’ll wait to see “what opportunities open up for me” as far as working for another clinic or in private practice.

Would you, I asked, go back to work for your old company, with your old colleagues, if they invited you back?

“Not in a million years,” he said.

He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy one.