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Medical board goes easy on mentally ill physician

A Miami doctor who deliberately set his hair on fire and hid drugs in his wife's food was allowed to turn in his medical license Saturday without penalty. The Florida Board of Medicine decided that Dr. Thomas D. Thornburgh was not responsible for his behavior because he has been diagnosed as mentally ill.

In an unrelated case, a Tampa psychiatrist was placed on probation and fined $3,000 in connection with the 1987 suicides of three patients.

Dr. Horacio Arias, who was a consultant for the Hillsborough Community Mental Health Center, authorized the release of the patients over the phone without coming in to examine them.

Arias was merely abiding by the rules the state had in place at the time, said his attorney, Grover Freeman.

One victim was a 44-year-old man with a history of suicide attempts. Tampa police took him to the center after finding him sitting in traffic trying to get run over. A counselor at the center decided he wasn't really sick, just malingering, and released him with Arias' okay. He was found dead on Interstate 275 that night.

One of the other cases is eerily similar. A 38-year-old disabled veteran was found dead in traffic the same night he was released. In the third case, a woman set fire to a building, went inside and shot herself in the head three days after the center let her go.

The common denominator, experts said, was that the crisis counselors who interviewed the victims all lacked sufficient training. Florida law says publicly financed centers don't have to hire licensed counselors. Only one of the counselors had a master's degree, and it was not in a counseling field. Another had a bachelor's degree, and one had only two years of college.

Since the deaths, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) has raised the requirements for crisis counselors. But the minimum is still a bachelor's degree and two years' experience. HRS also starting requiring a face-to-face evaluation by the psychiatrist on call when a patient is brought in against his will, as the three who died were.

Arias said he left that job and is now working at Bay Life Mental Health Center in Ruskin. He is no longer involved in crisis work, he said.

In the Thornburgh case, records show that the Miami neuropathologist was admitted involuntarily to Jackson Memorial Hospital's psychiatric unit many times since 1985. On that occasion, police found him lying on his front lawn after having shaved his head, eyebrows and chest. He said the devil told him to. He was released three weeks later.

According to his attorney, Thornburgh became so ill that he stopped practicing medicine in 1989. That year, he was brought to Jackson after a series of strange events, including setting his hair on fire and putting Haldol, a strong drug for psychotic patients, in his wife's food.

After all these hospitalizations, records say, Thornburgh would refuse to take his medicine or cooperate in his care. So on May 1 of this year, DPR Secretary George Stuart issued an emergency suspension of Thornburgh's medical license.

Thornburgh did not attend Saturday's hearing. But he won a victory. If a doctor who has been charged in a complaint turns in his license, it's considered a disciplinary act and is reported to the national data bank that keeps track of problem doctors. But the board agreed not to consider the relinquishment a disciplinary action. That leaves Thornburgh's record clean, if he decides to move to another state.