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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 private practice.

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 hospital.

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 policy states.

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 said.

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 Albany.

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 privacy.

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 1995.

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 to run.

"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.


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