PROVO — An Orem plastic surgeon sentenced to jail for gagging his girlfriend in a closet is now facing a malpractice lawsuit over allegations he left one patient with deformities.
In the lawsuit filed in 4th District Court this week, Jennifer Swalberg accuses Joseph Berg, 47, of performing an abdominoplasty and liposuction procedure in May 2011 that ultimately left her disfigured and in pain. She also alleges that the doctor failed to give her post-operation directions and later prodded her infected wounds with a pickle fork.
Berg, who owned Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Institute and Day Spa in Orem, surrendered his medical license to the Utah Department of Occupational Professional Licensing after he was charged in his girlfriend's kidnapping and admitted he was addicted to prescription drugs. He was eventually sentenced to 180 days in jail.
Swalberg said she underwent surgery before all that, on May 4, 2011, after Berg characterized himself as a surgical "artist." She was told the surgery had gone well and Berg then told her to wear compression garments and come back in six days.
"Dr. Berg did not provide Jennifer with instructions on how the compression garments were to be worn, nor did he give her any instructions regarding post-op damage," the lawsuit states.
The woman wore the compression garment as it was originally placed until her next appointment when she told Berg she was in pain and that the compression garments were causing indentations and swelling. The lawsuit states that Berg told the woman the pain was normal, but that the compressions were too tight. He allegedly attempted to alleviate this with steroid injections and moving the tissue with his hands.
The woman's pain persisted and her wounds started leaking blood and other fluid, prompting her to schedule additional appointments, according to the lawsuit. At one appointment, Berg is accused of forcing gauze into the wound with his fingers. At a second, he allegedly ignored signs of infection and gave the woman a prescription without treating the wound.
Other appointments were canceled or would require Swalberg to wait hours before being seen, the lawsuit states. In one visit, she said she waited three hours before seeing Berg "splayed out across the floor, his eyes open and glazed."
"After a few moments, Dr. Berg came to and stood up," according to the lawsuit. "He saw (Swalberg) and told her to go back into the exam room and he would be in shortly to 'have a look.' Based on his condition, (she) declined, but Dr. Berg insisted that he give her additional steroid injections."
Swalberg refused, and an assistant told her she could leave and come back. The woman apparently apologized for Berg and said he "had recently undergone a medical procedure" and offered to reschedule.
In an August visit, Berg told the woman that he rarely saw patients "who had healed so poorly, but that he knew what to do."
He then injected her with steroid shots and administered a local anesthetic to the wound. "Without any surgical assistance or preparation, Dr. Berg cut open (Swalberg's) surgical site," the lawsuit states. "By the time the local anesthetic had largely worn off, and (Swalberg) felt the cutting, which caused terrible pain … Dr. Berg repeatedly stabbed Jennifer's insides with a 'pickle fork,' which Dr. Berg said would loosen the scar tissue."
The incision was bleeding profusely and the woman said she started to sob. Berg attempted to seal the wound with a liquid adhesive, applied gauze, put the woman in a binder and left. After that, the woman said blood and putrid liquid came from the wounds, but Berg's staff either refused to schedule her for further appointments or didn't answer her calls at all, the lawsuit states.
"Despite Dr. Berg's representations that he was an 'artist,' Dr. Berg left (Swalberg) with a series of jagged incision scars; lumps of hardened scar tissue; fat, skin and tissue necrosis from repeated steroid injections; and abnormal tissue distribution," the lawsuit states.
The woman is alleging health care malpractice, battery, lack of informed consent and negligence and is seeking special, general and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
Berg's problems came to light after his arrest in November 2011, when Orem police received a 911 call and responded to Berg's house. When they arrived, they heard a 48-year-old woman crying and in distress. Police broke down the front door and said they found her with her hands and wrists taped together and tied to a dresser in the closet. She also was gagged, prosecutors said.
The woman later claimed the incident was being blown out of proportion and that she was never abused. But Berg ultimately pleaded guilty to kidnapping and possession of use of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a restricted person.