Ore. doctor pleads no-contest to negligent homicide

Dr. Soraya Abbassian pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide, Sept. 12, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)
Dr. Soraya Abbassian pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide, Sept. 12, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A surgeon has plead no-contest to criminally negligent homicide after she incorrectly performed a late-night cosmetic surgery procedure on a friend who later died.

Under Oregon’s Revised Statues, a person commits criminally negligent homicide when, “with criminal negligence, the person causes the death of another person.” It is a class-B felony, and comes with a potential sentence of 10 years in prison.

On Dec. 15, 2010, Dr. Soraya Abbassian, 45, performed surgery on 59-year-old Judith Ann DesMarets without the proper medical equipment or nursing staff, officials said. DesMarets died four days later. On Aug. 27, 2012, a Multnomah County grand jury indicted Abbassian on one count each of second-degree manslaughter and recklessly endangering another. The reckless endangerment charge is related to a separate procedure.

As a result of the plea deal, the original indictment charging her with manslaughter and reckless endangerment has been dismissed. Formal sentencing has been set over until October. However, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office has agreed, as part of the deal, not seek any prison time. Abbassian will be sentenced to three years formal probation and 300 hours of community service. She will also be banned globally from practicing medicine in any capacity, the plea agreement states. The Oregon Medical Board (OMB) has fined Abbassian $10,000 for “her disregard of professional ethics, patient safety and lack of clinical judgment,” a report obtained by KOIN states.

According to the OMB, when Abbassian started the cosmetic procedure on DesMarets, she “failed to conduct an appropriate and sufficient medical evaluation.” Abbassian administered a local anesthesia, the OMB stated in a report obtained by KOIN 6 News.

The specific procedure that was going to be performed remains unknown, though the family of DesMarets said it was going to be a tummy tuck; however, no incisions were ever made, a law enforcement source said.

Shortly after the anesthesia injection, DesMarets started to “complain of chest pain and shortness of breath,” the OMB report states. According to testimony provided to the OMB by Abbassian, DesMarets had a seizure and became unresponsive. Abbassian performed approximately 15 chest compressions and then called 911.

Abbassian later admitted that “she did not have a crash cart” at her clinic where the surgery was performed, the report states. When paramedics arrived, they found DesMarets unconscious in the exam room, on the floor, and Abbassian was no longer performing CPR. Doctors at Portland Adventist Medical Center treated DesMarets in the critical care unit, where she was immediately put on life support.

Doctors declared DesMarets dead at 8:20 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2010.

An autopsy performed by the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that DesMarets suffered from an anoxic brain injury. “The initial impression is that [DesMarets]’s cause of death is related to medication(s) she had received or a complication with local anesthetics,” the report reads.

In a Dec. 22, 2010, interview, Abbassian told the OMB that “she regularly performs dermatological procedures by herself, without office staff present, in her solo practice clinic.” She said that she has called emergency services to her clinic six other times for complications, the report states.

OMB determined that Abbassian’s decision to perform a surgical procedure on a friend late at night without staff support “displayed poor medical judgment.” Officials said the doctor’s clinic was not equipped to address a medical emergency and that she failed to “respond in a competent manner to her patient’s distress.”

The recklessly endangering charge, which is a misdemeanor, stemmed from a procedure performed by Abbassian on a different patient between July and September 2010. That patient told investigators she experienced dizziness and a rapid heartbeat following the procedure. Prosecutors allege in court documents that Abbassian put that patient in substantial risk.

Her license to practice internal medicine was suspended on an emergency basis on December 23, 2010.

On January 12, 2012, OMB issued a complaint and proposed disciplinary actions for the alleged acts of “unprofessional or dishonorable conduct,” documents obtained by KOIN reveal. The report states Abbassian “failed to recognize that [DesMarets] was experiencing symptoms of anesthetic toxicity from the anesthesia that [Abbassian] had administered and failed to respond appropriately.” The OMB has not released its final decision because of the pending criminal investigation.

Abbassian retained criminal defense attorney Stephen Houze, who has declined to comment on the pending criminal investigation. At Abbassian’s Aug. 28, 2012, arraignment in Multnomah Court Circuit Court, he entered a not guilty plea to the original indictment. The judge overseeing that hearing, in accordance to an agreement reached between Houze and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, allowed Abbassian to post 10 percent of a $50,000 bail.

At Thursday’s hearing Houze called the case “tragic” but said the resolution was appropriate.

Tim Quenelle, an attorney representing DesMarets’ son, said a civil settlement was reached in September 2011. Bound by a strict confidentiality clause as part of the agreement, Quenelle said he could not discuss specifics of the settlement and added the agreement had not been submitted to a court of law, which is typical in civil agreements.

M’Liss Murray, who described herself as a close friend to Abbassian, attended the first scheduled plea hearing, which was scheduled for last week, but then later set over, for support. The two met in 2008 and have remained in touch throughout the years.

“She really is someone who should be a doctor,” Murray said. “I’ve never seen someone care for their patients like [Abbassian].”

Murray, who declined an on-camera interview, but agreed to be interviewed for this story, said many of the facts surrounding the death have yet to be revealed. She took issue with the OMB report that claimed Abbassian stopped performing CPR.

“She couldn’t be performing it because she had to run out and unlock the door [for paramedics],” Murray said.

The death of DesMarets took a toll on Abbassian who moved to Pennsylvania, Murray said. In early 2011, Abbassian traveled to Haiti to install plumbing systems following the 2010 earthquake, Murray said.

“She just really cares for people,” Murray said. “Anything that could have gone wrong that night [in Dec. 2010] did,” Murray said.

In an August 2012 interview, Kathleen Haley, executive director for the OMB, described the case as “very unfortunate and very rare.” Haley said criminal charges against a doctor are “uncommon.” Haley said that in the last 19 years, this was only the second time something like this has happened in the state.

Formal sentencing will take place in October.

The case was prosecuted by Senior Deputy District Attorney Chris Ramras and Deputy District Attorney Annie Shoen. Portland Police Homicide Detective Chris Traynor was the lead investigator assigned to the case when the criminal investigation was opened.

Brent Weisberg

Follow Brent Weisberg on Twitter at @BrentKOIN

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