It had become a painful routine — marking off the box for epilepsy on school forms, year after year.
But Heather Hampel had no choice. A doctor had diagnosed her son, Stefan, with the neurological disorder in the fourth grade, and he had to be watched closely for seizures and side effects from the medicine.
Stefan took drugs that made him drowsy. He fell asleep in class and struggled at times to express thoughts and formulate sentences. In high school, driving was discouraged, as were school dances with strobe lights.
He carried the stigma of having epilepsy.
But the doctor was wrong: Stefan didn’t have the disorder. And he wasn’t alone.
More than a decade later, Stefan and some 350 other Detroit-area residents who claim the same doctor intentionally misdiagnosed them with epilepsy as children are still waiting for answers.
Their class-action suit against Bloomfield Hills, Mich., neurologist Yasser Awaad and his former employer, Oakwood Hospital & Medical Center, has languished in Wayne County Circuit Court for five years.
A trial date was set for Dec. 2, but it got bumped to June.
At the heart of the case are allegations that Awaad intentionally misdiagnosed kids with epilepsy to boost his salary, and the hospital failed to stop him, despite being alerted by other doctors to Awaad’s practices.
According to court documents, Awaad’s EEG interpretations raised red flags among doctors who had referred him patients. Awaad was telling children their EEGs were abnormal, records show, but second opinions revealed they were normal.
“I was concerned that he was diagnosing kids with seizures who didn’t have them,” Dr. Susan Young testified in a 2011 deposition. Young said she stopped referring Awaad patients after she noticed a pattern developing in which he was diagnosing “a lot of kids with seizures.”
Awaad was once the top-paid doctor at Oakwood, making more than $600,000 a year. Of that, $250,000 was in base pay, while the rest involved bonuses for bringing business to the hospital.
He is still practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia, where he moved in 2007 after shuttering his practice here. He could not be reached for comment, but has denied wrongdoing.
His medical license remains in good standing in Michigan. The latest word from state authorities, according to a November document, is that there is no evidence to support disciplining Awaad.
Oakwood also has denied wrongdoing, maintaining that children were not harmed in Awaad’s care.
“We recognize how distressing it is for parents to have questions about the diagnosis and treatment of their children, and we take the claims and concerns brought forward by the former patients of Dr. Yasser Awaad and their families seriously,” Oakwood said in a statement to the Free Press. But, it concluded, “we continue to believe, based on our analysis, the children were cared for and treated appropriately.”
Late last year, the courts delivered a blow to the children’s parents when the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear their parallel class action. The state appeals court previously ruled the parents had no legal grounds to sue over the alleged misdiagnoses — only the children.
‘Deserve some justice’
Kevin Patelczyk, a health care resource analyst from Sterling Heights, was pursuing his master’s degree in health business management when he made a shocking discovery about his childhood neurologist. Patelczyk was participating in an online class forum when he spotted a report about how not to run a medical practice.
The subject of the article? Awaad, the pediatric neurologist who had diagnosed Patelczyk with epilepsy when he was in high school and gave him drugs that made him so sick, he attempted suicide in college.
“It was him. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s him,’ ” Patelczyk, now 30, said in a recent interview, adding, “I was quite upset.”
Patelczyk, who is among the class members suing Awaad and Oakwood, endured a hellish ordeal involving a host of health issues, including the epilepsy diagnosis that he said radically altered his life.
Patelczyk said he was about 16 when he went to Awaad for episodes that included passing out, shaking and breaking out in cold sweats. Awaad ran an EEG and told him he had epilepsy.
Patelczyk said he felt some relief getting a diagnosis, but he didn’t get better. Over time, he developed digestive problems and numbness and tingling in his fingers and toes. He got cramps. He was frequently sick.
“I got very depressed. Life was becoming very limited,” Patelcyzk said. “I wanted to be done.”
One night, while in college, he swallowed numerous pills from different bottles and woke up sick the next morning. Patelczyk, then 20, was hospitalized for two weeks in a psychiatric unit. He was taken off his medications, got therapy and started rebuilding his life.
Shortly after, he went back to see Awaad, who told him he had a heart condition and he didn’t need to see him anymore.
Patelczyk didn’t know at the time that Awaad had come under state investigation for billing procedures. Complaints about misdiagnoses followed.
Patelczyk eventually learned about the class action and joined it, saying Awaad abused the trust of vulnerable patients who were desperate for help.
“Our story needs to be heard,” Patelczyk said. “We were victims of a crime and we deserve some justice.”
In 2012, Awaad was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and serve at least one year of supervised probation for misdiagnosing epilepsy in four children and giving them anti-seizure drugs they didn’t need.
The fine was part of a consent agreement between Awaad, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and the state Board of Medicine, which concluded: “There is no evidence in the record that any of the children referred to in the complaint suffered physical harm due to the misreading and medication.”
“The order speaks for itself,” said Awaad’s attorney, Max Hoffman, who represents Awaad only in his state licensing matter. “He has been steadfast with the board and steadfast with the board’s order and highly values the opportunity to practice medicine.”
Under the consent agreement, Awaad also had to have his work, including patient test results, reviewed by a board-certified pediatric neurologist for at least one year.
According to Hoffman, Awaad holds a full-time faculty position in Saudi Arabia, where he moved in 2007 — one year after he learned he’d come under investigation by the state over his medical treatment of two children.
Legal turmoil followed.
After closing his practice, Awaad sued Oakwood, alleging it owed him more than $400,000.
Oakwood countersued Awaad, charging that he committed fraud and failed to meet professional standards for a physician. That litigation, the hospital stated in December, “was purely a contractual dispute and had absolutely nothing to do with the overall quality of care or services he provided to his patients.”
Awaad’s billing practices were another issue. In 2009, Oakwood agreed to pay $309,140 to Michigan’s Medicaid program to settle claims that Awaad had overbilled the state for services for poor patients.
Farmington Hills attorneys Brian Benner and Nancy Savageau, who are representing the class-action plaintiffs, can’t understand why Awaad still has his license. Both scoffed at the $10,000 fine, calling it outrageous.
“Awaad is a bad actor. He should be locked up,” Benner said. “Why haven’t they taken away his license?”