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SALT LAKE CITY — It was 2018 when Robert Arias realized his vision was faltering.
Much appeared blurry to the 35-year-old laborer from West Valley City, and he struggled to see at night. Arias also has diabetes, which can lead to cataracts. A doctor recommended surgery.
So he went to a free medical clinic in Salt Lake City, where a volunteer ophthalmologist quietly made an offer, his attorneys allege: The doctor said he would perform the cataract surgery at his Holladay practice, ahead of the clinic’s one- to two-year wait time. And he charged $800 — a fraction of the typical price tag.
Now, after what he alleges was a string of botched surgeries from Dr. Paul Wade Wyatt, Arias is blind in his right eye. He and his wife are now suing Wyatt in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.
Arias, who is undocumented and originally from the Dominican Republic, paid in cash, according to the lawsuit filed Monday. He did not know that state regulators had prohibited the doctor from performing any surgeries almost two years earlier, or that Wyatt had surrendered his license in other states.
“My client has to deal with this every day for the rest of his life. Every day when he gets up, he will have to look at his disfigured face through the one eye that he has left,” his attorney, Dustin Lance, said at a Monday news conference. “We want to ensure that Dr. Wyatt every day knows and remembers what he did.”
According to Lance, Arias is not alone. He alleges the doctor performed similar procedures on other undocumented patients in the Hispanic community, who did not report complications for fear of deportation.
The lawsuit seeks a hefty $10 million in damages, alleging negligence, fraud and medical malpractice.
“It’s a large number that, in reality, we have very little likelihood of ever recovering,” Lance said. Follow-up doctors have said they will likely need to remove Arias’ eye within the next year and have called Wyatt’s procedure a “third-world surgery,” he added.
Arias’ procedures in Wyatt’s office, starting in August 2018, took place during a five-year period when Utah’s licensing division barred Wyatt from performing any surgeries or working in private practice, the legal complaint alleges. Arias returned for several operations in following months — including once to replace a wrong lens — and to receive several antibiotic injections to combat an infection in the eye.
As his vision and pain from infection worsened, Arias went to an emergency room where his wife, Phawell Arias, reluctantly told doctors Wyatt had operated on her husband, his attorneys contend. A “furious” Wyatt later informed Arias that he had broken laws and the emergency room was not trained to treat him, the suit alleges.
It adds that Wyatt drew on the faith he and Arias shared, referencing his own connections within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his teaching job at LDS Business College. He allegedly urged Arias to recommend his practice to friends.
A voicemail left at a cellphone number for Wyatt was not immediately returned Monday; LDS Business College also did not return a voicemail.
In Utah, about half of non-citizens lack health insurance. Those who are undocumented do not qualify for Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income people.
Ysabel Lonazco, an immigration attorney, urged potential victims in Utah’s Hispanic community to come forward, noting a special visa is available for those who report crimes but lack legal permission to live in the U.S.
”Don’t be afraid,” she said at the Monday news conference. “Dr. Wyatt doesn’t have the right to take advantage of people because they are afraid and because they have no resources.”
Records maintained by the Utah Division of Occupational & Professional Licensing show Wyatt surrendered his physician’s license in April after the agency found he had performed eye surgeries “on numerous occasions” despite being on probation, which barred him from doing so. In 2016, licensing officers found he had engaged in “unprofessional and unlawful conduct” and put him on probation for five years, the records state.
Lance said the division is currently investigating his client’s case. In Utah, practicing medicine without a license is a third-degree felony.
The suit alleges other states had identified Wyatt’s “shoddy medical practices,” saying he has surrendered medical licenses in Minnesota and Wyoming. It names as defendants his wife, Marni Wyatt, identifying her as his unlicensed surgical assistant, and other unnamed employees at the medical practice.
Included in the court filings, printouts of an online fundraising page titled “Help Dr. Wyatt Heal,” describe Wyatt’s “skill and a deep compassion for people who struggle.” They say he has provided eye care to impoverished people overseas, including in Arias’ native Dominican Republic.
The GoFundMe site describes his practice in Wyoming as “relentlessly attacked” by another doctor, who “through a clever campaign of lies and deceit, convinced the medical board to pull (Wyatt’s) license — a devastating tactic that caused the family to lose virtually everything.”