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Franchett Jones’ first interaction with Dr. Manoochehr Pooya was a calming one. She’d arrived at Greater Southeast Community Hospital after suffering an attack of cardiac arythmia, a symptom of heart problems that had become more worrisome after her recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Late in the night, an elderly doctor came into her room. He had white hair and glasses and spoke in a softly accented voice.
“He said, ‘Everything looks OK. So far I haven’t seen nothing,’” Jones, 34, recalls of the December 2006 hospital visit. “‘Just take it easy for tonight, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’”
The next day, Pooya returned and again put Jones at ease. He said her tests looked good but wanted to wait for opinions from an arthritis specialist and another doctor. He did a routine exam, pulling back the covers, lifting her gown and listening to her heart with a stethoscope.
Pooya kept Jones in the hospital for a second night and returned the next morning. He pulled back the covers, lifted her gown, and again put a stethoscope to her chest. Then, she says, he asked an unusual question, hinting at behavior that would land him in trouble with the law and his profession. “He said, ‘Are you doing this for me?’” recalls Jones.
What did he mean? When asked, Pooya responded that Jones wasn’t wearing any underwear, and repeated that he thought she was doing it for him. She replied that most patients wore nothing beneath their hospital gowns because of frequent visits from probing doctors and nurses. Pooya left the room.
Jones wasn’t sure whether the doctor was coming on to her or just being a goofy old man. So she called her mom, who recommended a wait-and-see strategy. A few days later, Pooya sent Jones home with his card, instructing her to visit his private practice for a follow-up.
Jones, who worked for several years as a title searcher in D.C., could have run Pooya’s name through the case-file databases she’d mastered on the job. But she wouldn’t have found a thing. At least two patients had complained about the doctor’s advances before, but both had been turned away by prosecutors and police, according to court documents.
Pooya, 71, who declined to comment for this story, graduated from medical school in Tehran, Iran, in 1961 and completed his residency at George Washington University. He lives in a $2.5 million home in Potomac. At the time of Jones’ troubles, he had no criminal record and no history of disciplinary action with the D.C. or Maryland boards that oversee physicians. Complaints filed against physicians are not made public unless they result in punishment.
Jones was more concerned about getting attention for her new condition than investigating her doctor. She had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis earlier in 2006. Patients with the autoimmune disorder often suffer drastic losses in mobility because of pain and joint deterioration. Jones’ case had progressed with alarming speed. When she first saw Pooya, she’d been out of work several months and already needed help standing and walking.
So Jones called the number on Pooya’s card. The doctor answered the phone himself and made an appointment. When she arrived at his 7th Street SW office, Jones says she still felt unsure and brought her 13-year-old son into the exam room. Pooya sent the boy back to the lobby. As soon as they were alone, Jones says, Pooya approached her with a smile and said, “Hi, honey. I missed you.”
He started asking questions. At first, they didn’t seem unusual. He asked if she was married and if she was dating. Then he asked if she was having sex. She said no. She said she was a single, Christian woman. The doctor teased back, saying, “Sex is fun!” He told her she should use condoms.
Jones didn’t like the comments, but she opted to hold her breath and get through the appointment. She recalls her thoughts at the time: “I’m pissed off. I’m mad. But at the same token, I’m worried about my health.”
Pooya told Jones he needed to do an EKG. He opened her shirt and lifted her breasts from her bra, she says. As he stuck the terminals to her chest, he tried to kiss her on the lips.
Jones knew she wasn’t supposed to move while the test was in progress. Plus, she was too weak to stand up on her own. She turned her head sharply. He tried again, she says, and she turned once more.
Pooya finished the exam and helped Jones back into her clothes. She called for her son, who steadied her up and walked her to the car, where she called her mom. This time, she told her daughter to never go back to Pooya.
In late February 2007, Jones had another attack. Once again, an ambulance ferried her to the Greater Southeast emergency room. Her first physician checked her heart, didn’t seem worried, and promised to release her later in the evening. Jones drifted off to sleep. When she awoke, the sun had just begun to rise. She asked a nurse why she hadn’t been released. The nurse handed over admission forms, signed by Pooya.
Jones is still trying to forget what happened over the next two weeks. Pooya visited every day, she says. He called her “honey” and “baby” and massaged her shoulders. She says he rubbed her nipples when he listened to her heart and kissed her on the lips. He offered to visit her at home and perform breast cancer screenings. Meanwhile, conditions in the notoriously dysfunctional hospital gave Jones pause about complaining. She sat for hours in a bedpan full of her own urine and had to call her mom to bring in bottles of water.
“I didn’t say anything to none of the nurses because I felt like, the doctor is doing this and he’s in charge,” Jones says. “Everything I expressed was to my family.…I didn’t know what to do, to tell you the truth. The whole ordeal was stressful.” Jones focused on getting out of the hospital.
“My goal was to get out of there,” she says. “That place is disturbing.”
When she started pressuring Pooya to send her home, she says, his tone switched from cooing to fierce. One day, he stood by her bed and took her hand in his and began rubbing it against his crotch, she says. Jones could feel his penis getting hard. She told him to give her hand back, she says, and said she wanted to be discharged. He left the room. A few days later, he sent her home.
Jones found a lawyer in the phone book. He told her to call the Board of Medicine, the agency charged with licensing and sanctioning physicians who practice in the District. The agency sent an investigator to Jones’ home and instructed her to call the police, according to Jones.
Pooya was arrested in June and charged with a crime that never seemed harsh enough to Jones: misdemeanor sexual abuse for the incident in which he manipulated Jones’ hand. When the trial began in October, she learned about two previous accusations of abuse against Pooya.
Defense attorneys argued to exclude the evidence, but several documents made it into the case file.
In a report filed in June 2000, D.C. police detective Karen Moss dismissed allegations made by Alberta Ward, who said the doctor had fondled her breasts and stuck his tongue in her mouth: “There was no evidence of criminal intent,” wrote Moss. “Suspect has history of hugging and kissing patients. Suspect may have reasonably believed the complainant was interested.”
The report suggests an incident of nontherapeutic touching between Ward and Pooya. But in court documents, the doctor’s attorney denied any such contact took place. He also disputed allegations made by a second patient, in 2006, who accused Pooya of sucking on her breasts.
Pooya’s lawyers portrayed all three alleged victims as mentally unstable and addicted to drugs.
Jones says she’s never used drugs. A search of criminal records databases showed no charges on her record.
The hardest part of the ordeal, she says, is that everyone asks her why she didn’t do something sooner. “That angered me so much,” says Jones, who now uses a wheelchair. “Until you are actually in that position, you don’t know what you would do.”
Pooya was found guilty in November. Unless he files an appeal, Pooya’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb.4. The D.C. Board of Medical Examiners has summarily suspended his license, but he is still licensed to practice in Maryland, where he has privileges at several hospitals. A representative from Greater Southeast Community Hospital says there will be no internal investigation into whether Pooya may have had other victims because the complaint against the doctor originated in a patient’s home, not inside the facility.