Controversial doctor meets untimely death
Blanchard had devoted patients, and harsh
critics of her procedures
Grace, Staff writer/The Times-Picayune
Her neighbors in the faded, Florida resort
town heard the screams, smelled the smoke, bashed in the door of the
nondescript, one-room apartment. But it was too late to save the woman, a
50-year-old not long enough a resident of Florida to have replaced the Louisiana
plates on the black Mazda RX-7 parked in back.
Firefighters in Fort Pierce, on Florida's
Atlantic coast, declared the woman dead at the scene of the Jan. 22 blaze, only
to see her revive temporarily. Whisked across the peninsula to Tampa General
Hospital, she would struggle another two weeks before dying of the burns that
covered three-quarters of her body. She died Saturday.
It was a grimly harrowing end to a life
that, for a time, had lofted Annelle Blanchard to the highest echelons of social
and professional acclaim in New Orleans area, and it was not the only time she
had been hurled down hard. If New Orleans has celebrity doctors, Blanchard, an
obstetrician, was one of them. By the early 1990s, her remarkably devoted
patient base included doctors, lawyers, and famous names such as former City
Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who called her "one of the best doctors that I
have ever been to." Anne Rice, another patient, dedicated a book to her.
Blanchard's income ran into the high six figures, and she and her lawyer husband
and large family lived in an elegant neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain.
As with any tragedy, though, outsized
achievement hid outsized flaws, say those who questioned her medical practices.
Critics accused Blanchard of duping terrified patients into expensive treatments
to prevent early childbirth, even when there was no sign of risk. In some cases,
they charged, Blanchard funneled the expectant mothers through a home health
agency she partly owned. There were also allegations of drug abuse.
Even before her legal troubles began,
Blanchard was a polarizing figure, said Brobson Lutz, former director of the
city's Health Department.
"Dr. Blanchard was well-known in the
medical community for controversial and unconventional treatment
approaches," Lutz said. "Yet she seemed to have had the ability to
mesmerize many of her patients."
Central to the controversy was Blanchard's
regular use of aggressive and costly treatments to prevent premature delivery,
including a surgical procedure to keep the cervix from dilating and a
combination of monitoring and pump-administered muscle relaxant to stem early
Blanchard, a self-styled
"high-risk" pregnancy specialist, claimed she prescribed the practices
more often than others because her patients were more likely to need them.
In 1994, East Jefferson General Hospital
revoked Blanchard's right to practice after an investigation by the American
College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 16 of 20 cerclages, the
controversial surgical procedure, were unjustified. The panel also questioned
"what appeared to be a near universal use" of the pump-administered
muscle relaxants following surgery. Blanchard sued, alleging sexual
discrimination, breach of contract, defamation and anti-trust violations, but a
judge granted summary judgment to the hospital and ordered her to pay attorney
There was more. In 1996, she lost her
privileges at Kenner Regional Medical Center. In 1998, the Louisiana Board of
Medicine suspended her license. It offered no public reason at the time, but a
complaint by Florida's Department of Health linked Louisiana's action to
allegations of "continuing and recurring excessive use and abuse of
controlled substances, which renders her unable to practice medicine with
reasonable skill and safety to patients."
Despite the deaths of three of the story's
major players -- Elkins died in 1998, Trail early last month -- the battle
continues in state court ....
Blanchard had obtained a Florida medical
license in 1993, as her reputation in Louisiana began to unravel. Last May she
had started working as an obstetrician for Trinity Medical Center in Fort
Pierce, which treats mainly poor and Medicaid patients. Even so, her past had
soon begun to haunt her.
"A month after Blanchard joined
Trinity St. Lucie County Healthy Start Executive Director Sylvie Kramer ended
Healthy Start's financial agreement with the clinic after what she had heard
Blanchard later got temporary privileges
to work at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce through June 2000.
But in June, the state health department
filed an administrative complaint against Blanchard alleging that she violated
Florida law by not informing medical authorities that her license had been
suspended in Louisiana.
Blanchard responded with a proposed
consent agreement in October, saying she would agree to a $1,000 fine,
reimbursement of the cost to the state of the investigation and entrance into
the Physicians Recovery Network. That's where negotiations appear to have been
at the time of her death.
Investigators have leads
It remains unclear what caused the fire in
the tiny $350-a-month apartment Blanchard had leased starting New Year's Day.
Fire officials had hoped to talk to
Blanchard, but they believe they can solve the case even without her input.
"We're running down a few leads that
the state fire marshal's office wants to explore a little further," said
Capt. Buddy Emerson of the St. Lucie Fire District.
An investigation by Nationwide Insurance,
which had written a policy on the apartment building, determined several bottles
of narcotics were found in Blanchard's unit after the fire, according to local
press reports. Emerson wouldn't comment on the report.
A Tallahassee attorney representing
Blanchard said his client had complained about the apartment's wiring.
The apartment building owner told a
reporter that someone from Trinity came to the apartment following the fire and
removed several items, including Blanchard's Mazda and a small item wrapped in
foil that was in the freezer. A Trinity representative said the employees went
to the apartment because they were concerned Blanchard's personal effects might
Whatever the outcome and whichever side of
the controversy they're on, people in New Orleans remained stunned by the final
chapter of Blanchard's life.
"This case has now claimed a third
victim," said Norman Mott... "It's just a human tragedy," he
. . . . . .
Reporting published in the Fort Pierce
Tribune was used in this article. Stephanie Grace can be reached at email@example.com
or (504) 826-3383.