Local spine specialist Johnny Benjamin was arrested on drug charges on Oct. 12. The next day, Vero Beach orthopedic surgeon Chris Talley went to the hospital feeling seriously ill.
Six months later …
Benjamin was found guilty by a jury in West Palm Beach on April 27 and faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. The next day, Talley died from complications related to pancreatic cancer.
Their connection: The two surgeons shared the same work address – at the Pro Sports/Pro Spine offices on 37th Street, west of the Indian River Medical Center – for nearly two decades.
The two tragic departures have created a challenge that Peter Wernicki, the orthopedic surgeon who founded the practice in 2000, could never have imagined.
“For Chris to get sick and Johnny to get arrested within 24 hours, then for Chris to die and Johnny to get convicted within 24 hours … Let’s just say it has been a rough six months.
“There was no way to see any of this coming,” he added. “Somebody said it could be made into a movie.”
But who’d believe it?
Talley was only 53, the father of two teenagers and a respected orthopedist who, until last fall, had shown no signs of any serious illness. Only days before flying to Baltimore in October to be examined by specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he had performed four total joint replacement surgeries and attended a Vero Beach High School football game.
“He wasn’t feel great, but he thought he just had the flu,” Wernicki said. “Then, after going to the hospital, he thought he had something he’d recover from. Then, as time went on, we found out that wasn’t the case.
“It wasn’t until the first of the year that we knew how bad it was.”
By then, Benjamin had been indicted by a federal grand jury and was preparing to go to trial – another surreal situation, considering his credentials.
For those who don’t know: Benjamin, also 53, was a nationally renowned spine surgeon who had worked with NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players, as well as college athletes, boxers and mixed martial arts fighters, and had been profiled by the CBS Evening News, ESPN and other major news outlets.
Though there were rumors of financial difficulties, his arrest – and the details included in the allegations against him – stunned the Vero Beach community, especially those working in the Pro Sports/Pro Spine offices.
“Chris and I were partners; Johnny and I weren’t,” Wernicki said. “Johnny just leased office space from me and we shared overhead. We had a really good arrangement for a long time, but, over the past couple of years, we had some business-related disagreements.
“Still, I didn’t see this coming.”
Wernicki recalled one the day, when the practice’s office manager interrupted him and said, “There’s somebody here you should talk to.”
Actually, it was a couple of somebodies – federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents who showed up with a warrant to search Benjamin’s office.
“It was a shock to all of us,” Wernicki said. “But they were very professional and very polite. They never searched any of our offices or asked to see our files or records. They assured us there was no involvement with the practice, that it was something Johnny did on his own.
“It was kind of scary, though,” he added. “The detectives told us, ‘We’ve had you under surveillance for a year,’ and they knew everything about us. That was a bit creepy.”
As for any negative impact the arrest and conviction might’ve had on the practice, however, Wernicki said only a few patients have asked about Benjamin’s legal troubles.
“We billed ourselves as Pro Sports/Pro Spine, but when this stuff happened with Johnny, the news media did a good job of not associating us with him,” Wernicki said. “So, I don’t think it has hurt our practice.”
Certainly, it didn’t hurt as much as losing Talley, who was Wernicki’s junior partner, the practice’s lone total joint replacement surgeon and a beloved member of the Pro Sports/Pro Spine family.
Wernicki said he was working at Vero Orthopedics when he decided to start his own practice in 2000. Only months later, he brought in Talley, who earned his medical degree from the University of Virginia, completed his orthopedic residency at the University of Florida and, after finishing a sports-medicine fellowship in Oklahoma, joined the Duke University Orthopedic Team in North Carolina.
Talley, whose then-wife was from Vero Beach, relocated here 18 years ago and partnered with Wernicki. He proved to be the perfect fit.
“Chris and I got together, and everything worked out the way both hoped it would,” Wernicki said. “After the first couple of years, we decided to focus on what we liked to do. He liked doing total joint replacements and I didn’t really enjoy them, so he started doing all of them.”
He paused briefly, then continued: “Chris was my only partner. He was a gifted and talented surgeon who never stopped learning and always strove for perfection. He was also a good guy.
“I miss him a lot,” he added. “He’s going to be tough to replace.”
But that’s what Wernicki hopes to do.
Marcus Malone, a physician who specializes in physical medicine, physical rehabilitation and pain management, joined Benjamin’s team in 2015 and has taken over that practice, but he does not perform surgery.
“From what I can see, he’s doing a very good job,” Wernicki said of Malone, who has renamed the practice “Elite Rehab,” which continues to lease office space from Pro Sports.
Nobody, though, is doing Talley’s job. In fact, operating without a total joint replacement surgeon, Pro Sports has been referring patients in need of those procedures to other practices.
“I know a lot of people have been asking what’s going to happen to us, now that we’ve lost Chris and Johnny, but our plan is to rebuild the practice and make it even better in the future,” Wernicki said.
“It won’t be easy to fill Chris’ shoes, but we’re actively searching for an orthopedic surgeon who excels in total joint replacements,” he added. “The thing is, we’re a sports medicine practice – we’re the orthopedists for the two high schools and Historic Dodgertown – so whoever we bring in must be willing and able to do that kind of work, too.”
Wernicki said he’s grateful for the condolences and support he has received from other local orthopedic practices, which have offered to help him get through this difficult stretch.
“I received numerous phone calls from competitors, and they’ve been very generous and concerned,” he said. “That’s very Vero Beach.”
Some of those competitors, Wernicki said, also offered him an opportunity to join their practices. But he declined – because he didn’t want to abandon his Pro Sports staff, particularly his longtime nurse (Sheila Samarco), office manager (Amanda Mullikin) and physician’s assistant (Worth Keville).
Wernicki still struggles with Benjamin’s bad choices, calling his criminal behavior a “waste of his talents.” But the disgraced spine surgeon has only himself to blame.
Talley did nothing to deserve his cruel twist of fate.
“One I’m mad about,” Wernicki said. “One I’m sad about.”
Sounds like the closing line from a movie.