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Doctor Carmen Puliafito and USC: The Smoke & Mirrors Games Played by Hospitals and Their Bad Phy

Up until last year Doctor Carmen Puliafito was the dean extraordinaire of Keck School of Medicine, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He served the school as an administrator, a respected physician and a stunningly successful fundraiser.

When he abruptly resigned in March, 2016, he told everyone he had made the decision to look into other interesting challenges – specifically, to take a key position with a drug company called Ophthotech, which was creating new medications for eye conditions. He was praised by the university’s president for his work in helping elevate Keck to among the finest medical schools in the nation. He was lauded in the school paper – The Daily Trojan – and raved about on local news.

“In one now-discovered video, Puliafito uses a butane torch to heat a large glass pipe outfitted for methamphetamine use. He inhales and then unleashes a thick plume of white smoke. Seated next to him on a sofa, a young woman smokes heroin from a piece of heated foil.” (L.A. Times investigation report)

Sarah Warren overdosed while partying with the esteemed doctor (photo by L.A. Times)

But . . . but, did any of these Puliafito cheerleaders bother to mention that the man’s resignation happened 3 weeks after a 21-year-old woman overdosed and nearly died, while he was spending time with her in the same Pasadena hotel room?

Don’t be ridiculous. Transparency is not a common protein to be found in modern healthcare DNA. There are reasons the Wizard draws curtains.

Now, USC’s super-hero dean, age 66, was neither charged nor arrested at the time, in spite of the fact that he was found in a hotel room with an unconscious prostitute and a cache of illegal drugs. But when an unknown caller who was familiar with the incident contacted the USC president’s office – the party-hearty doc decided to resign.

On the night in question, investigators discovered methamphetamine in the Pasadena hotel room. Puliafito was considered by Pasadena police to be simply a witness to the near-lethal overdose. That decision was highly questionable in itself.

“My girlfriend here had a bunch of drinks and she’s sleeping,” the doctor told the 911 dispatcher. Asked whether the woman had taken anything else, he replied, “I think just the alcohol.”

Detectives looking into the case interviewed enough friends and acquaintances to find out that – as busy as the doctor-dean-fundraiser was – he seemed to have plenty of time to party with a circle of drug pushers and users – at least some of whom reported that Puliafito used drugs himself whenever a party broke out. It was beginning to appear that Keck’s dean of medicine was leading a curious double–life.

Investigators learned of numerous failures in medical ethics as well as potential crimes. There is evidence that Puliafito – an eye specialist – wrote prescriptions for breathing inhalers for at least 2 of his party pals, evidently to calm their symptoms after smoking meth. And police soon knew that on the night of the overdose, the doctor lied to the 911 operator by reporting the unconscious woman was “just drunk.” A blood test performed at the ER later proved that she was,“obviously under the influence of narcotics,” and the doctor certainly knew it.

In spite of the squalid details, Puliafito’s secret partying ways expose embarrassing questions for USC Medical School. What did university administration know about the squirrelly doc’s miscreancy, and how long did they know it? Why was he allowed to remain on staff after the incident at the hotel? In June of last year, 3 months after Puliafito’s sudden departure, he was honored by various USC administrators, including President C.L. Max Nikias and Puliafitio’s immediate boss Michael Quick, who chose to remain silent for more than a year when investigators came calling.

Now, it is true that USC is a private university. But it does collect millions in public funding for its medical research, and as such, we believe it owes the public just a bit more transparency. As dean, Puliafito supervised hundreds of medical students and many professors. The likelihood that he was deeply involved in repeated criminal and ethical misbehavior reflects just a tad poorly on the values and leadership of the university as a whole, does it not?

“The med students are just crushed by this. Totally shamed.” (One second-year resident who asked not to be named)

But, as is almost always the case when it comes to medical operandi, the White Coat Conspiracy of Silence kicked into high gear, until they had little choice but to finally speak up. They were hoping it would all blow over quickly. After all, the American citizenry – in love as they are with their silly little text-tools – possess a remarkably brief attention span. But here’s a news flash for USC President Max Nikias:

What you are experiencing now is the tip of an iceberg. And some of us are absolutely paying attention.

Here’s another look at this seriously squalid case:

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