As a little boy growing up in Denmark, Niels Lauersen loved to dig tunnels in the ground. And while his older brother, who liked to build things with his Erector set, went on to a career as an architect, Lauersen came to New York and made a career as an obstetrician-gynecologist.
"Always in my life, there were the tunnels," Lauersen says. "I would reach all the way in there and pretend I was rescuing people. It was in me from the start."
Today, at 63 (or is it 60, as Lauersen sometimes says? Age, he will tell you, "is a mental thing"), Lauersen is one of the best-known and busiest OB-GYNs in New York. In his office on Park Avenue at 74th Street, he sees as many as 100 patients a day. He is the author of eleven books on women's health, including It's Your Body, It's Your Pregnancy; Getting Pregnant; Listen to Your Body; and PMS: Premenstrual Syndrome and You. He is not averse to TV ops, appearing regularly, for example, on programs hosted by Geraldo Rivera, who named him "the Dyno Gyno." (Geraldo's wife is a patient of Lauersen's.)
Perhaps because New York is so heavily endowed with glamour industries and has so many rich people, doctors here tend (with the exception of plastic surgeons) to inhabit the silent upper middle class. But Lauersen's name appears in gossip columns, and within the medical community he has a reputation for having built "a models' practice," as one lawyer who has represented Lauersen puts it, "a high-strung, young, rich, good-looking clientele." His patients come from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds, but he is best-known as someone who cares for -- and in some cases dates -- Upper East Side matrons and women in the entertainment business. Liv Ullman is a former girlfriend and a patient; Denise Rich -- songwriter, Democratic Party fund-raiser, and ex-wife of the billionaire fugitive Marc Rich -- was Lauersen's girlfriend for eight years. Celine Dion has consulted with Dr. Lauersen. When he was in his thirties, he was married briefly to the heiress Rebekah Harkness, a woman twenty years his senior.
"I like women," Lauersen says. "I've had a few nice girlfriends, a few wonderful people. All women are beautiful, you know? I've had a few models -- that comes with the territory."
"You connect with a woman when you're getting her pregnant. Maybe I connect better than other OB-GYNS."
Dating models comes with a career as an OB-GYN?
"I mean, I don't date patients, but a lot of my patients are wonderful and beautiful. Women are more fascinating than men -- physically and psychologically."
There was a time, back in his residency days, when the sound of Lauersen's clogs hitting the floor would send the nurses in the gynecology wing into giddy excitement. "They'd tell each other, 'Here he comes, that handsome Dr. Lauersen,' " says Ronnie Verebay, a receptionist in his office. "They'd primp and preen." But Lauersen has let his midsection go thick and his ringlets have lost their spring. They've also lost their blondness -- he seems to have fought nature by dyeing them a shade of orange reminiscent of Johnny Rotten's.
The past few years have not been easy on Niels Lauersen, seductive though he may still be. A federal investigation that began in 1997 led to a 23-count indictment, primarily over insurance fraud. Lauersen's trial, which took place over seven weeks from January to March of this year, ended with a hung jury, but a retrial is scheduled to start August 9. In question is whether Lauersen defrauded insurance companies of $5 million over ten years by receiving reimbursement for infertility treatments (for which the patients were not covered), billing them as gynecological procedures (for which the patients were).
Throughout his trial, the courtroom was overrun with dozens of women, Lauersen patients who had come to stand by him in his hour of need. "Once you've known Dr. Lauersen, you could never let him sit here by himself," said an older patient who didn't want to give her name. "He's a genius when it comes to women. If there's a part of a woman that's medically known, he's the expert on it."
"I connect with my patients," Lauersen says. "You connect with a woman when you are getting her pregnant. Maybe I connect better than other gynecologists."
Perhaps. But while the Feds were investigating his insurance claims, the New York State Department of Health was conducting its own investigation of Lauersen's care of eight patients. On February 25, Lauersen was found guilty of "practicing with negligence on more than one occasion" (most of this having to do with poor record-keeping), placing his license on two years' probation. And the state has a separate investigation under way involving quality of care that could have even more dire results.
Lauersen has recently faced a string of malpractice cases. In late 1998, two juries in separate cases handed down awards of $1.8 million and $375,000 over improperly handled deliveries. In both, it was alleged he used excessive traction, resulting in nerve-root injury to the infant's brachial plexus (in the shoulders) and partial paralysis of the arm.
One night while the second of these trials was going on, Lauersen had another catastrophic delivery at Lenox Hill, allegedly fracturing the baby's skull with a forceps; the baby was born in cardiac arrest, with risk of permanent brain damage. Lauersen's admitting privileges at the hospital were suspended as a result of this incident, says a Lenox Hill source, and he resigned.
Lauersen is a rainmaker, however, and last year he managed to get a new appointment at St. Vincents. "Dozens of my important friends" -- including, he says, John Kennedy Jr. -- "wrote letters" to help him get the appointment.
These are serious times for the Dyno Gyno of Park Avenue, but Lauersen thinks the only threats to his career are those that can dent his notion of his own decency. "I'm a good person, you know?" he said when we first met.
Lauersen said this with captivating, wide-eyed sincerity. But his considerable charisma is lost on many of his fellow doctors, who -- always off the record -- are dismissive of the quality of his care. Colleagues at hospitals he's left -- he also worked at New York Hospital and Mount Sinai -- describe him as "flaky" and "detached." "I thought of him as just a jet-set kind of guy, an unpredictable doctor," says one. "He was just not the kind of person I would feel comfortable sending a patient to."
But as evidence of his medical excellence, Lauersen points to his legions of devoted patients. "Some of them even brought their babies to the trial, and that judge made them leave," Lauersen observes. "People come to me when they can't get pregnant, and I help them. I'm a fertility guru. Because what could be better than giving people babies?"
Lauersen's hold on his patients was in evidence from the outset of his federal trial. Women filled the benches and clogged the marble foyer outside the elevator bank, 30, 40, 50 of them a day. There were women in the cafeteria and women in the hall. Beautiful women and homely women; women in serge and women in sweats; women who had a day off from work and women who had their life off from work. Some brought husbands. Some brought babies. Some brought pictures of Lauersen holding their babies.
The Danish former model and modeling agent Bonnie Haydon, elegant and well preserved, hit some kind of perfecta as a patient, an old friend, someone whose husband has been Lauersen's lawyer, someone who sent her daughters to Lauersen, and someone whose grandchild Lauersen had delivered.
An Israeli mother of twin 21-month-old boys happened to discover Lauersen on TV after six gynecologists had misdiagnosed her endometriosis. "He brought me so much joy," she said. "Such an extraordinary man. I had a C-section and a problem with the anesthetic. He said, 'Just put your head on my shoulder -- it'll be okay.' I saw his face when I delivered, and he was beaming. Then at two in the morning, he brought me a ham-and-cheese sandwich."