A Utah County plastic surgeon acted so strangely this summer falling asleep standing up, swallowing handfuls of pills and buying drugs not used in his practice that his own staff canceled his surgeries and quit en masse, according to an emergency order from the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing released Thursday.
Joseph Edward Berg, 46, who was charged with multiple felonies for allegedly attacking his live-in girlfriend in November, will not be allowed to practice medicine, at least for now.
The professional licensing division (DOPL) announced it has suspended Berg's medical licenses after a closed-door "emergency hearing" in downtown Salt Lake City. He can appeal the decision in an upcoming hearing.
Berg, who owns the Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Institute in Orem, began this summer to arrive late for work, if at all, according to the order. He brought tanks of nitrous oxide to the office, though it was not needed for medical procedures. He ordered many unnecessary bottles of pills.
When he passed out in a hall this August, Berg began convulsing, his eyes rolling back, but he refused help after someone called 911, DOPL learned.
During frequent trips to the bathroom, he carried a backpack and rolled-up Ace bandage, which staff observed filled with syringes. Each week, his behavior became more erratic. Believing it was unsafe for him to perform surgeries, staff cancelled his appointments and decided to quit. On the staff's last day at work, they saw Berg and his girlfriend flushing a significant amount of drugs down the toilet, the order said.
Several months earlier, Berg had performed a tummy tuck and liposuction on a patient who did not heal properly. Infection and swelling caused her to return to Berg's office, where she saw him passed out in a hallway. Berg refused medical help and attempted to give the patient steroid shots, which she declined.
During a subsequent visit in August, the patient waited five hours to see Berg. He gave her injections to numb the areas and then disappeared again for more than hour. The patient consequently sought out a different doctor.
Berg had 29 prescriptions for himself, one for a controlled substance, and 21 for his live-in girlfriend, the order said. Of those, 20 were for a controlled substance. Drugs illegally in his possession included hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl patches.
On Aug. 20, the Sandy Police Department responded to a report of Berg's "suspicious behavior," the order says.Someone had seen the doctor in his car filling a syringe. When staff walked up to the car, Berg either threw it under the dashboard or in a black bag, the order states. The doctor said he was preparing the drug for patients.
According to charges filed in 4th District Court, Berg attacked his girlfriend at his Orem home in the early hours of Nov. 6, grabbing her hair and dragging her to a bedroom closet. According to court documents, Berg tied his girlfriend's hands and tried to stop her from screaming by covering her mouth, first with his hands and then with a cloth.
During the alleged attack, Berg's girlfriend managed to dial 911 from a phone she left off the hook, which brought police, who forced their way into the home. Officers found the woman tied to a walk-in closet drawer to keep her from leaving, according to the order. She had been dragged and beaten.
In a Nov. 11 search, police found three handguns, syringes, scalpels, a hemostat and multiple prescription drugs, many that were loose in a tackle box, a backpack and scattered on furniture, the order says.
"The fact that [Berg] was also in possession of a large quantity of firearms also supports a conclusion that he may be actively involved with either consuming or selling illegal drugs," the order states.
But Berg's attorney, Rhome Zabriskie, said Thursday in a phone interview that the doctor's home is an extension of his office. Even minor medical procedures have been performed there.
"His entire home is stocked with medical supplies and files he runs his business from his home essentially," the lawyer said, adding that Berg has a concealed weapons permit. "It sounds alarming when you hear he had these prescription drugs inside of his home but not when you consider the circumstances."
As for why police would have found the woman tied to a closet drawer, Berg has previously said to other media he was trying to stop her from driving under the influence.
Thursday's suspension order applies to Berg's physician and surgeon license, and his controlled substance prescribing license. Berg was not invited to, nor informed of, the Wednesday hearing. He will be appealing the suspension, Zabriskie said.
Having drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone in open containers instead of prescription bottles "supports a conclusion that [Berg] has engaged in unlawful and unprofessional behavior as a physician/surgeon," the order states.
DOPL spokesperson Jennifer Bolton said emergency hearings are "infrequent" and only done on a case-by-case basis. In this situation, Bolton said, it was decided "there was enough concern" about the ongoing criminal case against Berg to hold such a hearing. Three licensed physicians, an assistant Utah attorney general, and DOPL staff members attended the hearing.
Treating patients while impaired, his self-treatment and failure to maintain medical records were among the unprofessional conduct cited in the order. The division was not aware of Berg's staff departure until after his November arrest.
Berg was charged with first-degree felony aggravated kidnapping, third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, third-degree felony possession of a firearm by a restricted person and class B misdemeanor assault. He has entered not guilty pleas.
Janelle Stecklein contributed to this report.