State hospital doctor has troubled past
Thursday, February 12, 2004
By DAVID RYAN
Register Staff Writer
A psychiatrist working at Napa State Hospital has been disciplined for a
series of acts committed while he was in private practice, including
threatening to kill one of his former clients and treating clients while
he was under the influence of illegal drugs, according to records from
the Medical Board of California.
Psychiatrist Bruce Africa agreed to restrictions in his practice in April
of 2000, after San Francisco prosecutors convicted him of making death
threats in 1997 and the Medical Board, represented by the state attorney
general's office, charged him with unprofessional conduct.
Africa waived his right to dispute several of
the accusations against him. He is licensed under probation for 10 years
as part of a deal negotiated with the state. He also agreed to submit to
psychological treatment, an ethics course, drug testing and a ban from
According to a statement released by Africa's Larksburg-based attorney,
Ivan Weinberg, Africa holds a Ph.D. in
biochemistry from UC Berkeley and was an associate clinical professor of
psychiatry at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine from 1978 to 1997.
NSH spokeswoman Lupe Rincon said she could confirm only that Africa works as a psychiatrist at the hospital.
"Due to confidentiality laws we're not able to comment on personal
information of any employee," she said.
She said all prospective employees are subjected to a criminal background
check through the U.S. Department of Justice. She submitted a statement
detailing a list criminal offenses that bar applicants from employment at
The list includes serious sexual offenses such as rape or child
molestation, and violent offenses such as murder, kidnapping, robbery or
assault with a deadly weapon. Making death threats is not on the list.
"If an applicant has been convicted of any felony offense other than
those specified above or had been convicted of a misdemeanor, the
circumstances shall be reviewed and a determination made as to the
applicant's suitability for employment at Napa State Hospital," the
Rincon said in making a determination on applicants' suitability for
employment at the hospital, management looks at work history and their
references. In the case of people with controversial backgrounds, the
hospital also looks at the nature of any criminal offense and how much
time has elapsed when weighing whether to make a job offer.
William Sargent, a self-proclaimed advocate for some mental patients at
NSH and critic of the hospital's policies, has followed the Africa matter
and wonders why NSH hired him.
"They're scraping the bottom of the barrel for staff," Sargent
Sargent is advocating on behalf of an NSH patient named Daniel Atterbury
in a dispute over proper medication. Sargent claims Atterbury is being
drugged as punishment for complaining about his treatment.
Nora Romero, a spokesman for the state Department of Mental Health, has
said the state's hospitals are mindful to select the proper people to
fill its positions.
"We are most careful because of the vulnerability of our
population," she said.
Africa's troubled history
Records issued by the attorney general's office and the state medical
board in 2000 detail the incidents and allegations that led to Africa's
discipline. They show that Africa is licensed as a physician who
graduated from Duke University School of Medicine in 1973 and lives in
In the agreement, Africa waived his right to contest charges and
accusations brought against him by police, doctors and former clients.
The clients' names were redacted from state records to protect their
The accusations include:
* Medical doctors who treated Africa in 1991 said he told them he had
treated a client while under the influence of marijuana, and said he used
hallucinogenic mushrooms, LSD and had problems with alcohol. During one
therapy session a former client said she asked Africa if he was on drugs,
to which he responded, "Yes I am, would you like some?"
* Police said on April 8, 1997, Africa accused a former client of having
an affair with his ex-wife, leaving a message on the man's answering
machine that said, "I have a problem now 'cause I only have several
bullets left in my gun, and I'm gonna take you out..."
When police had to forcibly serve a search warrant the next day, they
reported that Africa refused to put his hands where they could be seen
and yelled obscenities at officers. Police seized three semi-automatic
handguns and a cache of ammunition. Africa was later arrested for making
a death threat.
The attorney general's complaint said Africa's ex-wife, whose name was
redacted from the complaint, said she had no contact with the former
client. She separated from Africa in 1991 and the couple divorced in
According to an April 15, 1997 article in the San Francisco Examiner,
Africa made the death threat against San Francisco lawyer James
Brosnahan, a former Iran-Contra prosecutor who later went on to represent
"American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. The case resulted in a
misdemeanor conviction against Africa in 1998 for making a death threat.
* A former client said Africa wrote a prescription in November 1996 that
said, "All appropriate, adult women should be encouraged to bring
this magnificent man to rest, preferably in a warm home and bed."
The client showed it to a woman, who was angered by it. When the client
told Africa about her reaction, Africa told him to try harder.
In a statement, Weinberg said there were about 600 "similar
physicians" practicing medicine in the state under the medical board's
diversion program. It's a system where physicians enter inpatient
programs or attend 12-step meetings and support groups. The diversion
program claims it has a 74 percent success rate, with success meaning the
ability to keep a physician alcohol and drug free for three years.
According to the board, 58 percent of physicians in the program are
self-referred, 20 percent are ordered by the board to participate and
another 20 percent join the program in-lieu of disciplinary action. The
program was set up in 1980 to help physicians with substance abuse or
mental health problems and costs roughly $800,000 per year for the state
"I am sure (Africa's superiors) will confirm that he is a gifted
clinician who, interestingly, because of his having experienced the other
side of some of the very problems he is treating, has the ability to
empathize and identify with his patients in a way that many psychiatrists
do not," Weinberg said.
NSH Medical Director Jeffrey Zwerin released a statement defending the
hospital's hiring of Africa.
"As a state mental health agency, the hospital understands and is
sensitive to the fact that individuals may sometimes experience
difficulties in their lives," it said. "However, with
appropriate help, individuals can recover, be successfully employed and
lead normal and productive lives."
The public can check up on the status of their medical professionals'
licenses to see if they are on probation at www.medbd.ca.gov.