Friday, October 2, 2009

Bad Hotel: the German spa that abused my childhood doctor

This week I read with dismay that my childhood doctor in Phillips, Maine -- Gretl Hoch -- spent her final years being neglected, abused, and robbed by the owners of a German spa where she became effectively imprisoned.

Dr. Hoch -- perhaps the only foreign-born person living in our western Maine hamlet in the early 1970s -- was an intimidating figure among the under-10 set, with her no-nonsense approach to administering shots and a strong German accent that was inevitably (and unfairly) linked to stock characters from Hogan's Heroes. She practiced medicine in Phillips for more than 40 years, and had willed her ample estate to the Shriners' Hospitals for Children, SOS Children's Villages, and the Franklin County Animal Shelter in nearby Farmington. In 2004 she decided to return to her native Germany, to be closer to where her parents were buried.

Unfortunately she chose to check into a very, very bad hotel while her home was being renovated. At the Naturhotel Hessische Schweiz in Meinhard, owners John and Gudrun Stifel took advantage of the octogenarian doctor, who was suffering from Alzheimer's' disease. The Stifels cut off her access to her friends, family, and legal representatives, kept her in conditions that at one point had her hospitalized with dehydration and bedsores so serious they required surgery, and secured power of attorney over her $7.5 million estate, court documents show. When a relative was able to gain access to Hoch, she reported living in fear of Mr. Stifel who she said hurt her.

Dr. Hoch, 84, died in June 2008 while law suits on her behalf were still pending in Maine courts.

Last week, a Maine judge awarded her estate with nearly $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The judge found the Stifels had "cloistered Dr. Hoch at the Naturhotel when she was in an extremely fragile and vulnerable state...prevented her from having contact with her closest friends and family..[and] bullied, manipulated, and intimidated her to gain control of her money." A third person, Mary Wagner-Burkhart of Alexandria, Kentucky, was also found to have tried to improperly gain access to Hoch's estate.

Hoch's estate will now be going to charity, as she wished. The Stifels appear to still be in business. Maybe someone should check up on their guests.

[Update: 3/2/2011: The Stifels appealed the decision, but refused to turn over key documents to the court and yesterday were found in contempt. Their attorney says they are facing litigation in Germany as well. They are, as of this writing, still in business.]


  1. Thank you for this very well written piece. Dr. Hoch delievered my oldest son 40 years ago last Sat at Franklin County Memorial Hospital. I loved that woman. She fit right in with Maine's no nonesence approach to issues. She kept my son in the hospital for 5 days. She told me, "One of my babies ( her's) died from SIDS and she wasnt't gonna let that happen to another of "her" babies." I'm so glad I went to see her in 2008 before she died. She truely cared about people and her generous contributions prove that. I miss her.

    1. How horrible to read about what happened to Dr. Hoch in her final years. She also delivered my first child 41 years ago while I was a teen mom and if it wasn't for her I don't know how I would have handled being a teen mom. She delivered all 3 of my children. She was such a sweet person with a compassionate heart. I loved her like a family member.

    2. Indeed, a real tragedy. I'd be curious to see what if anything became of the hotel owners.

  2. I would like to edit my previous post to correct the date I went to Phillips to see Dr. Hoch. It must have been sometime in either 2004 or 2003. She was still fiesty even then. RIP Dr. Hoch. Know that justice has been served and let's hope it continues.

  3. Thanks, Three Commas. She was an exceptional person. Pity the Naturhotel appears to still be in business under Mr. Stifel's ownership.

  4. This is so sad. She was truly a warm giving person with a great spirit. I worked in her office when I was in high school and always found her to be generous and caring with a strong mischievous side. Her love of people and animals was her life. Phillips was lucky to have her.

  5. Christina Hettwer (formerly Stadtler)March 4, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    I am deeply and honestly shocked. My brother and I spent some months in Phillips (and at Mt. Abram) when we were 16. Dr. Hoch had been my grandmother's friend and neighbour in Germany for decades and she helped us find wonderful host families.
    She was a unique person, I still remember her dogs running around everywhere in the house!
    It makes me sad that she died so lonely, and if my grandmother had still been alive, we might have been able to change something here in Germany. But I didn't even know that she returned!
    I haven't found any coverage in German media, but I will mail you blog to some journalists I know!

  6. Christina - I really think the local media in Hesse should be knocking on their doors and asking questions. It's such an extreme scenario, one wonders if Dr. Hoch was not the only victim.

  7. I would like to say I came across this article and would like to thank the journalist for this well written piece. Also, I hope that full justice is served in Dr Hoch's behalf. She was well admired for all her medical practices, her care for every patient was of the very up most always. Rest In Peace Dr. Hoch.