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Prescription for trouble? OC doctor investigated for 2 overdose deaths

The CA Medical Board is taking action to suspend or revoke a doctor's license after linking him to two overdose deaths.
April 24, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
Jennifer Salo Jimenez wears her daughter's high school ring on one hand. A pendant hangs around her neck, close to her heart. It holds her daughter's ashes.

The sudden death of 23-year-old Tabatha Salo haunts the Jimenez family, especially as they learn more about the final months of Tabatha's life.

"My family, her grandparents, her sisters, her brother, we all miss her every day? every day," says Tabatha's mother Jennifer as she begins to cry.

The college student dreamed of becoming a social worker. Tabatha had a steady boyfriend of six years. She loved to sing and act and would travel with her grandfather on church missions to Mexico to help those in need.

"She was driven by her friends and helping people. She was a big sister. She was my firstborn, so we were best friends growing up. I was a single mom most of her life and we did everything together. She was a great kid," says Jennifer.

Tabatha died of a prescription drug overdose in December 2011. The Orange County Coroner ruled that Tabatha died from the combined effects of the painkillers oxycodone, oxymorphone and alprazolam, which is prescribed for anxiety. The coroner's report notes a "history of chronic drug abuse," but investigators found no evidence of illicit drug use. Until last month, Jennifer had no idea that her daughter's physician, Dr. John Petraglia, was being investigated by the California Medical Board in connection with the overdose deaths of two of his patients, including Tabatha.

Jennifer says Tabatha was referred to Petraglia for ongoing back pain after surgery in 2010. Less than one year later, Tabatha was found dead by her sister in their Mission Viejo home. "It was a complete shock," says Jennifer, who lives in Texas but flew out several times a year to visit Tabatha and other family members in Southern California. "I got a call out of the blue from her sister Brandi and she said, Tabatha's gone."

In March of this year, the California Medical Board filed a formal accusation against Petraglia alleging gross negligence: that he "negligently failed to get a full substance abuse history" from Tabatha.

Records cited by the Board show Tabatha was receiving opioids from two clinics. Her urine tests showed drugs he had not prescribed and it appeared she was taking higher doses than prescribed, indicating a "need for evaluation of a substance abuse disorder," which Petraglia failed to identify. According to the accusation, Petraglia prescribed the highly addictive drugs hydrocodone, oxycodone and alprazolam to Tabatha.

"She went to this doctor for help to alleviate pain, and we lost a beautiful person because of him," says Jennifer. "I believe justice needs to be served for my daughter because she trusted this man."

The California Medical Board's accusation also refers to a 52-year-old female patient identified as "J.C.," who died of an overdose in 2012, less than nine months after she first saw Petraglia.

"I feel for the other families too. I'm finding out there are so many other families affected by this doctor," says Jennifer.

Orange County Superior Court records show Petraglia has been a defendant in three medical malpractice cases that involve the alleged over-prescribing of drugs since 2011. Two of those cases settled out of court with Petraglia admitting to no wrongdoing.

A third civil lawsuit filed against Petraglia remains open. That case centers on two patients: Michael Huggard and Joseph "Beau" Rivas. Huggard,24, died of a prescription drug overdose at his Orange County home in October 2010. Rivas is still alive. But, according to the lawsuit, he suffers "from the physical and psychological effects of addiction, including multiple overdoses." A hearing is scheduled for May on the defendants' claims that the lawsuit should be dismissed. The lawsuit also names four Orange County pharmacies, four pharmacists, a physician assistant and Dr. Lisa Tseng as defendants in the case. Tseng is currently awaiting trial on three counts of second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of three of her patients.

Petraglia is already on probation due to a previous investigation by the California Medical Board that involved the over-prescribing of drugs and failure to keep accurate medical records. Petraglia was disciplined by the Board in 2013 and partially restricted from prescribing some of the most powerful prescription narcotics until the year 2020. Petraglia, who is a board-certified anesthesiologist, is now only permitted to prescribe and administer those drugs in a "perioperative setting," while acting as an anesthesiologist.

Petraglia continues to reach out to potential patients suffering with pain, on his website and through advertising on the street. A van parked outside his Newport Beach home is plastered with an ad for Petraglia's medical practice. It reads, "Got Pain? Get Relief" and gives a toll-free number to reach "board certified doctors working for you."

Eyewitness News Orange County Bureau Chief Eileen Frere repeatedly tried to reach Dr. John Petraglia, who has offices in Newport Beach and Fresno. The door was locked at his Newport Beach office. A worker inside told us that Petraglia is not seeing patients at that office anymore and that he's only doing anesthesiology.

Eyewitness News did reach Petraglia once briefly by phone. Petraglia said he had no comment and referred us to his attorney Raymond McMahon, who would only say, "I do not believe it is appropriate to litigate matters through the media."

Family and friends still think about Tabatha every day and mourn her loss. Best friend Courtney Wright was married earlier this month in Costa Mesa. Tabatha would have been her maid of honor. Instead, Courtney walked down the aisle wearing a blue, heart-shaped topaz that belonged to Tabatha.

Courtney shared with Eyewitness News the tribute she wrote for Tabatha's memorial service soon after her death. It's called "A Toast to Tabatha" and describes her as a thoughtful best friend who "loved to write notes and cards she'd hand deliver or send in the mail, even if you lived just down the street."

Tabatha's family wants justice and plans to sue Petraglia for wrongful death.

"I just felt like he murdered my child, you know. She trusted him," says Jennifer.

No criminal charges have been filed, but the California Medical Board wants to revoke or suspend Petraglia's medical license.

Rich Collins with the law firm Berger Kahn is representing Tabatha's family, as well as the Huggard and Rivas families in their civil lawsuits against Petraglia.

"We are gathering all available records and interviewing all known witnesses to determine just how Dr. Petraglia's treatment extinguished the young, vibrant life of Tabatha Salo. Based upon the medical board's extraordinary action taken last year against Dr. Petraglia, and again last month, as well as the number of other cases we are handling for victims of Dr. Petraglia's overprescribing of inherently dangerous narcotics, we expect to prove that Dr. Petraglia's care for Tabatha fell below the applicable medical standards. Through this process, we hope to achieve justice for Tabatha's family and honor the life of Tabatha," said Collins in a written statement to Eyewitness News.

Email Eyewitness News Investigative Producer Lisa Bartley ? Lisa.Bartley@abc.com


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