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Charlotte County man's overdose linked to clinic

Todd Brazis' family couldn't make sense of his death. Then, a box of his things helped clear the fog.

By MARLON A. WALKER
Published October 2, 2006


Todd Michael Brazis visited the Doctors Urgent Care Walk-in Clinic in St. Petersburg to get painkillers on March 9. A note in his file said he needed the drugs for a motorcycle accident injury.

Three days later, the 28-year-old chef and father was dead of an overdose. Methadone and oxycodone were found in his system.

The way Brazis lived made it hard for his family to understand how he died. He wasn't a depressed pill popper, his family said. And he didn't own a motorcycle.

They want to know why someone wrote Brazis a prescription for such potent drugs, and they want someone held responsible for his death.

Thousands of people die from prescription drug-related deaths each year in this country. It's extremely rare for a medical professional to be held liable.

But the recent arrest of a physician's assistant on charges she illegally trafficked prescription drugs out of the clinic Brazis visited has given his family hope that charges eventually will be filed.

"It's not going to bring Todd back," said his father, Steve Brazis. "But I want justice."

* * *

When Martha Brazis' boss told her she needed to go to the hospital right away, she thought about her husband, Steve, 54, who has a history of heart problems and had been hospitalized several times.

She left her job at Cracker Barrel in Port Charlotte and headed straight to Peace River Hospital in Punta Gorda. She ran into her husband in the parking lot.

"I never thought it was Todd," she said.

At the hospital, the family - which also included Steve Brazis' sister, Loure Whipple, and her husband, Jack - was told Todd Brazis was dead.

They weren't told how he died.

It was more of a shock than anything, said Todd Brazis' sister, Mandi Ray, 30.

"I talked to Todd every day," she said recently. "He'd tell me if there was a problem - even if I didn't want him to."

* * *

Todd Brazis moved out of his family's home March 1 - his birthday - to live with his girlfriend. She is the one who found him unconscious the morning of March 12.

The day after her brother died, Ray rifled through a box of his things that his girlfriend returned to the family. She picked up his wallet, hoping to find photos of him and his daughter. Instead, she found a card emblazoned with big, red letters.

"HAVE PAIN? NEED PAIN MEDICATION?"

The day before, her father had received a call from a Charlotte County detective, saying prescription painkillers were found in Brazis' system. One of them, methadone, is used to help wean addicts off heroin. The detective told Steve Brazis his son's death may have been due to an overdose of the drugs.

The call made no sense to Brazis. His son wasn't a heroin addict.

The business card also confused Ray.

The clues led them to the Doctor's Urgent Walk-In Clinic, 4900 33rd Ave. in St. Petersburg, more than 100 miles from Brazis' Punta Gorda home.

The family hired an attorney to help them find answers. They subpoenaed the clinic for Brazis' file.

His only visit to the clinic was March 9. His write-up said he had suffered herniated discs in his back, the result of a motorcycle accident. He was prescribed Xanax, oxycodone and methadone, according to the records.

He paid $249 in cash for the visit, which was protocol for all first-time visits. He then filled the prescription at G & H Pharmacy on 66th Street in Pinellas Park, according to Sheriff's Office records.

Steve Brazis said the autopsy report he saw never mentioned any broken bones or herniated discs. The omissions made him even more suspicious of the clinic.

"They pay 400-500 bucks, go to the pharmacy and buy the prescription," he said. "To me, this ain't right."

The Charlotte County Medical Examiner's Office declined to release the findings in the autopsy to the Times, citing the fact that an investigation into Todd Brazis' death is ongoing.

* * *

In May, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office raided the clinic, netting six arrests in part of "Operation Pain Relief." Two of the people arrested were doctors in the clinic. A lawyer for the clinic declined to comment.

The raid took place shortly after undercover detectives went into the clinic and received prescriptions for drugs without examinations.

Then, Sally Jane Medina, 45, was arrested earlier this month on charges related to improperly practicing medicine and trafficking in narcotics. She had been working as a physician's assistant and is accused of improperly supplying another overdose victim with drugs.

Pinellas County sheriff's investigators have been in contact with Charlotte County detectives and said more charges could come.

"As the investigation continues, the detectives will continue to discuss this and remain in contact with the state attorney regarding charges," Pinellas sheriff's spokesman Mac McMullen said.

Steve Brazis said he's holding out hope that the next charges filed will be for his son's death. He takes comfort in his efforts to push for that to happen.

"That was my best friend," he said. "I just don't want this to happen to anybody else's family."

Marlon A. Walker can be reached at 727 893-8737 or mwalker@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 11:05:05]


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