It all started with a sore foot. Alex Otto and Elisa Bob had noticed that one of their cats, a 16-year-old domestic shorthair named Coco, was having some trouble with her right front paw, which was swollen and causing the cat to limp slightly. On Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, the limp became pronounced. Coco could hardly put any weight on her paw, hobbling around on three legs. Otto and Bob worried that Coco’s foot was broken. It was late at night, and their regular veterinary clinic in Gaithersburg was closed. So the Chevy Chase residents decided to take Coco to the only 24-hour emergency animal hospital in D.C., Tenleytown’s Friendship Hospital for Animals.
The largest, most sophisticated, most comprehensive animal hospital in town, Friendship treats more than 40,000 cats and dogs each year and performs procedures that range from wellness care to chemotherapy. All the bells and whistles don’t come cheap, however, and Friendship has earned the reputation of being the Neiman Marcus of veterinary facilities. “Friendship is very well-known,” says Otto. “We’d heard of them before, and we always thought they were a place we could trust.”
It was slow at Friendship that night. The only people Bob saw working there were the receptionist, the veterinary technician who took down Coco’s intake information, and a pretty young woman who introduced herself as Dr. Zollinger. Bob repeated Coco’s preexisting conditions to Zollinger: hyperthyroidism and chronic renal failure, a kidney condition common in older cats that sounds a lot worse than it really is. Zollinger noted this on Coco’s chart again and then whisked her away for X-rays. The X-rays didn’t indicate a fracture.
Zollinger decided to treat Coco for an infection and prescribed an antibiotic, a foot soak, and a pain medication called ketoprofen. Bob mentioned that she had some pain medication at home, but Zollinger insisted that ketoprofen was better for pain associated with swelling. Bob figured Zollinger was the expert.
Coco went home and seemed to improve, walking and purring and eating as she usually did. But two weeks later, on Saturday, Feb. 15, Coco was limping again, her toe swollen up like an angry boil. Again, because it was the weekend, Friendship was the only animal hospital open in D.C. Bob took Coco back to see Zollinger, who inspected Coco’s toe again and told Bob that her nail bed was infected. Because she had not ordered any herself, Zollinger also asked for Coco’s current blood work, which had been done by her Gaithersburg veterinarian a couple of weeks before on Jan. 25. Then she prescribed another round of painkilling ketoprofen.
Coco’s condition worsened almost as soon as she got home. Over the next few days she cried out in pain when she walked on her injured paw, stopped eating, refused to take her medicine, and started dry-heaving. On Feb. 18, Otto and Bob rushed Coco back to Friendship in a panic.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Holy shit, what’s going on here?’” says Otto.
“We didn’t know what was wrong with her,” says Bob. “She was really sick.”
Alex Otto and Elisa Bob love their cats. Both grew up with cats, and in some of their earliest baby pictures, they are hugging giant cats almost as big as they are. They met through a personal ad, which Otto opened with “Loves cats.” When they first got together, Otto told Bob that he never wanted to have fewer than five cats in the family.
Whenever there’s a cat in trouble or a stray needing a home, they take it in. And when one of their cats, Chelsea, suffered from corneal ulcers, they paid for a cornea transplant. “I always feel that cats are kind of lucky if they find us,” says Otto, “because we’re going to be with them right up until the end.”
Bob found Coco while she was in Boston, volunteering at a veterinary clinic that doubled as the local pound. She always thought Coco was her most intelligent cat, so eager to explore the neighborhood. “She was a beautiful cat,” says Bob. “She had so much personality.”
Otto and Bob have all kinds of Coco stories. Like the time she somehow got locked in the basement of a house across the street for an entire month. She survived on roaches and rainwater that trickled through the foundation. And then there are the neighbors Coco befriended: a Singaporean graduate student from Bob’s Boston days who had never known a cat until Coco, an old woman across the hall whom Coco would go over and take naps with. If Coco didn’t make it over, the woman would demand to know where her cat was. Everyone seemed to love that fluffy black cat with the white spot on her chest.
When Otto and Bob took Coco back to Friendship on Feb. 18, she was too weak to even stand up, and Otto recalls her feet splaying out from under her like a novice ice skater’s when he placed her on the examination table. Zollinger wasn’t on duty that night, but another veterinarian, Dr. Jennifer Gschwend, took one look at Coco and admitted her immediately; she stayed for several days while they ran tests. Coco’s kidney-function indicators were off the charts, out of the range of textbooks.
Otto and Bob had to leave town two hours after dropping off Coco. They raced back the next day and headed straight for Friendship to check on Coco, hoping to be greeted by a recovered cat. Instead, they found Coco lying in her cage, weak and unresponsive. An IV tube fed and hydrated her; Coco had stopped eating on her own. “You could tell she was just in really bad shape,” says Bob. “I thought there was a good possibility that she was starting to die.”
Coco stayed at Friendship for another day so veterinarians could finish up testing. Zollinger told Otto and Bob that Coco’s kidney values weren’t improving and that the situation was grave. She said Coco might live another year or might die within days. Otto and Bob took her home and tried to nurse her back to health. Around midnight on Feb. 24, Otto noticed Coco behaving strangely. “She was trying to scoot under the bed, into a dark corner,” he says. “She was looking for a place to die.”
At 2:30 a.m., they rushed her back to the hospital. This time they went to VCA Veterinary Referral Associates, aka “the Barn,” an emergency clinic in Gaithersburg, Md. “At this point, I’d begun to have a few questions about Zollinger’s competence,” explains Otto. “We weren’t going back to Friendship.”
Otto and Bob were on the phone with the Barn throughout the day, checking on Coco’s condition. Around 4:30 in the afternoon, according to her charts, Coco began crying out, breathing raggedly through a slack mouth. The veterinarian placed an oxygen mask over Coco’s face, trying to ease her breathing. Ten minutes later, Coco died.
Otto and Bob arrived at the Barn too late to say goodbye to Coco. They waited in an examination room for the veterinarian to bring her in, and when she did, Coco’s body slumped limp and still in her arms. “There are only a few times in my life when I’ve wailed with grief,” says Otto, “and that was one of them. I can only imagine what the people out in the waiting room were thinking.”
Later that night, Otto, still shaking from the loss, remembered something the veterinarian at the Barn mentioned when she examined Coco. It had been said in passing, almost under her breath: Something must have destroyed Coco’s kidneys for them to have been in such bad shape.
A light bulb went off, and Otto spent the rest of the night poking around on the Internet. He learned that ketoprofen was a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)—which reminded him of something he’d learned during his training as a physician’s assistant: NSAIDs and kidneys don’t play nicely together. Sure enough, everywhere he looked, it told him that ketoprofen was dangerous to kidneys and that if it’s used at all, it should be prescribed only in very low doses, for a maximum of a few days. He also found out that ketoprofen wasn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on cats in the United States.
Otto spent the rest of the week contacting veterinarians all over the country, more than a dozen in all. Every single one of them agreed that Coco should never have been given ketoprofen, especially for 15 days. An autopsy confirmed Otto and Bob’s suspicions: Coco had died of massive kidney failure. It also showed that Coco had had cancer. But the fact that Coco didn’t have a whole lot of tread left didn’t temper Otto and Bob’s anger one whit. “Who knows how much longer she would have lived?” says Otto. “Maybe she would have lived a long time and we would have been able to love and comfort her. Now we’ll never know.”
Otto and Bob considered filing a civil lawsuit against Friendship and Zollinger, but veterinary-malpractice law typically doesn’t allow for the collection of damages beyond the value of the animal itself. And since Coco had come to them as a stray, she was practically worthless in the eyes of the law. Not only that, she was 16 years old when she died. In human years, that’s roughly 80.
So Otto and Bob went with their second option, which they assumed would be less arduous and more likely to succeed: a complaint filed with the city.
While Otto tried to navigate city regulations and agencies, Bob, on a hunch, checked into Zollinger’s veterinary license. She could not find one for her. According to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) records, Tawnia Zollinger was not issued her license to practice in D.C. until April 2003—two months after Coco died.
Zollinger was a full veterinarian. Having passed the national boards and graduated from veterinary school, she was participating in a yearlong postgraduate internship program at Friendship. But by law, all veterinarians in D.C., whether interning or not, are required to hold valid licenses. Additionally, interns are supposed to work under the supervision of another licensed veterinarian. Bob didn’t remember seeing anyone supervising Zollinger during any of her visits to Friendship.
“When you go and spend hundreds of dollars, you don’t expect to get someone who doesn’t even have a vet license and isn’t being supervised,” says Bob. In the couple’s case, they paid more than $1,000 to Friendship for Coco’s care.
Eventually, they tried calling the D.C. Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. Every state has one, which licenses veterinarians, reviews complaints, investigates malpractice, and generally oversees veterinary practice in the state. Bob reached Leon Lewis, an administrator in the DCRA’s Office of Licensing, who told her that D.C. didn’t have a board—and hadn’t had one for five years.
Actually, it was eight years. From 1995 to 2003, D.C. couldn’t find enough veterinarians who lived in the District to serve on its seven-member board. According to the Mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions, there are only about 50 licensed veterinarians who reside in D.C., so the pool of potential board members is a small one. The concentration of veterinarians in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs reflects the advantages of living and working outside the District: “You don’t have to deal with D.C.,” says Dr. Andrea Tasi of Alexandria’s Kingstowne Cat Clinic, referring to the city’s legendary dysfunction.
D.C.’s solution to the problem of empty board seats was to simply let the board lapse. But the lack of a functioning board didn’t stop veterinarians from practicing—or getting licensed, for that matter. According to Clifford Cooks, Lewis’ supervisor at the DCRA, there was still someone reviewing correspondence addressed to the board. “Any [licensure] applications that came in that met the criteria the board established before it was defunct were handled by [Lewis],” he explains. “Staff can promptly issue licenses if all qualifications are met. Where there were technical reviews, they were referred to the appropriate board for review.”
Translation: Every single complaint filed between 1995 and 2003 was held in limbo. “You need professional people to evaluate what needs to be done,” explains Cooks. There is no statute that requires a complaint be resolved within a specific period of time.
Undeterred by the absence of a board to complain to, Otto and Bob continued to raise hell. They wrote a letter to Mayor Anthony A. Williams cataloguing all the offenses that they believed they had uncovered, entreating him to deny Zollinger a license and to hold Friendship responsible for not only failing to supervise her, but also knowingly using unlicensed interns at the hospital without informing its clients.
On March 20, three weeks after Coco died, Otto and Bob received a letter from the DCRA stating that their case was being investigated. The case was assigned to Patricia Hill, who was the first and only sympathetic ear Otto and Bob encountered. In the middle of April, they went in to meet with her and present their story, including all the laws that weren’t being followed. “Lo and behold, she knew all this stuff,” says Otto. “She knew what Friendship was doing, and it was pretty damning stuff.”
Hill, who has been a DCRA investigator since 1989, interviewed the parties involved, visited Friendship, collected records, and reviewed the information for possible violations. “When I first met them, I thought they needed grief counseling,” recalls Hill, herself the owner of a cat. “I felt really bad for them.”
Last October, Otto took a job as a medical reporter for Tacoma’s News Tribune and moved to Washington state, where Bob will join him next spring, when she finishes law school at the University of Baltimore. That same month, he and Bob got engaged.
And thanks to some emergency legislation reducing the required size of the D.C. veterinary board from seven members to five, with just three required for a quorum, the board had held its first meeting in eight years on Nov. 20, 2003. “I don’t think they would have reconstituted the board if we hadn’t made a fuss,” says Bob.
Ron Collins, of the mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions, insists that the decision to reduce the size of the board predates Otto and Bob’s cage-rattling. “All legislation was sent to the [D.C.] Council by the mayor on Nov. 4, 2002,” he says.
Either way, the resurrection of the board meant that Coco’s case would finally be heard. Every month, the couple cleared their schedules and called Lewis to ask if the board had gotten to their case, and each month they were disappointed. Though the board is scheduled to meet the third Thursday of every month, it has only done so seven times out of a possible 19 since it was reconstituted. In Delaware, which is similar to D.C. in population, the board also consists of five members, but it managed to meet all but four times over the last two years.
In March of this year, the couple finally found out from Lewis that the board would take up their case at its March meeting. Mindful of the past meetings that never materialized, they were skeptical, but every time they called Lewis to reconfirm, he assured them that the board would indeed meet in March. Otto booked a plane ticket from Seattle to D.C.
On March 24, Otto and Bob sat in a reception area at the DCRA building on North Capitol Street. After an hour, Lewis appeared and said that the board was short a member. Dorothy Gray, a program assistant for the American Veterinary Medical Association, was nowhere to be found. Although the board has room for five members, it currently operates at its quorum-fulfilling minimum of three.
“You can come in and make comments,” offered Lewis. “But I can’t record them, since it’s not an official meeting.”
Lewis ushered them into a conference room and introduced them to the members in attendance, chair Jay H. Merker and Wanda Wilson, along with D.C. veterinary enforcement official Jo Anne Carey and legal counsel Sinclair Long.
Merker immediately reminded Otto and Bob that this was not an official meeting and that there wasn’t much they could say about their case. “We’re reviewing the case,” he said, “but we can’t listen to what you have to say, because there isn’t a quorum.”
Otto asked to speak on behalf of Coco, but Merker censored him.
“Can’t you just listen to us unofficially?” pleaded Otto.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate at this time.”
Otto and Bob were silent with fury. The board members looked as if they wished Otto and Bob would just leave.
“We’re not going away,” said Bob. “We need to know when this is going to be taken up.”
Merker tried to meet Bob’s gaze and managed to hold it for a moment before looking away. “We need the entire board here,” he mumbled.
“But there hasn’t been a quorum for [five] months,” said Otto, trying to control his voice. “And we heard there hasn’t been a vet board for five years. Why?”
“That’s correct,” said Long. “But you need to talk to the mayor. The board can’t answer that.”
Otto bit down on his lip, the veins in his neck popping. After a long silence, he spoke again. “Well,” he began, measuring his words, “do you have any advice for a guy who took time off work and spent $350 on a plane ticket to be here?”
No one answered immediately. The board members shifted in their seats and stared at the conference table. Finally, Long leaned back in his chair and offered, “Well, maybe give a call before you come next time.”
Bob says she suspected something might have been wrong when Coco began refusing her ketoprofen. Looking back now, she thinks Coco was trying to tell her that the medicine was hurting her. For a long time Bob was haunted by the struggle her cat put up. “But…we believed in Tawnia Zollinger,” says Otto.
Everyone, especially veterinarians, can sympathize with Otto and Bob. But losing a patient is simply part of practicing medicine. “If an animal dies under your care, in spite of your best efforts, it’s disappointing,” says Glassman. “You feel empathy towards the owner, but as a professional, it’s not unexpected that we’re going to lose a patient.”
“This is the line in medicine,” says Kingstowne’s Tasi, who has worked exclusively with cats since 1991. “You can do everything right and bad things can happen. And you can’t always have someone there, either. Part of it is making the decision and living with it.”
Zollinger’s prescription of ketoprofen, however, is another matter. “You should never give an old cat that drug,” says Tasi. “You’ll find that a pretty uniform opinion amongst people who do cats is that you really, really try to avoid using NSAIDs. With cats over a certain age, you work with the assumption that there’s loss of kidney function.”
But giving Coco ketoprofen wasn’t necessarily inappropriate just because the drug wasn’t approved for use in cats. According to Linda Grassie, a spokesperson for the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the use of unapproved drugs on animals is common practice. In fact, much of feline pharmacology is off-label. “Especially for companion animals that we’re not going to eat,” says Grassie, “vets have a pretty wide latitude in prescribing drugs and dosage levels.”
“This isn’t a matter of off-label drug use,” insists Otto.
If Otto and Bob had known that Zollinger was an intern, they say, they would have left right away. “But she held herself out constantly as ‘Dr. Zollinger,’” says Bob.
But Zollinger was a doctor and had been one since the minute she graduated from veterinary school. In contrast to medical doctors, who traditionally complete a residency after graduating from school, veterinarians, like dentists, can start work as soon as they get their degrees. But instead of diving right into practice, as the majority of veterinary-school graduates do, Zollinger presumably wanted more hands-on experience and accepted the lower pay and longer hours of an internship. Only a small percentage of veterinary-medicine graduates seek postgraduate training, and an even smaller percentage actually match with programs. Friendship typically receives 50 applications for its internships, accepting only four each year.
“These are very talented young people who have generally graduated at the top of their classes, have great recommendations from their professors, and are picked one out of 10 to do this,” says Glassman of his interns. “It’s a real feather in our cap to participate in an internship program.”
According to Glassman, who has owned and directed Friendship since 1983, the clinic’s interns work alone only after midnight, and even then, an expert, usually Glassman himself, is just a phone call away. “It’s totally inappropriate to say that she wasn’t supervised,” says Amy Meyer, who interned at Friendship with Zollinger. “I never hesitated to call, and there were many 4 a.m. phone calls.”
Glassman says he has terminated a veterinarian before for negligence. “Mistakes do happen,” says Glassman. “And when that happens at Friendship, we fess up. We take our risk management very seriously. I would do it again today, if the same situation arose.”
Friendship and other vet clinics in D.C. don’t work in a rigid disciplinary environment. The small world of D.C. veterinarians is also a clubby one. For example, both of the animal clinics that vet-board members Merker and Wilson work for—Collins Hospital for Animals and VCA MacArthur Animal Hospital, respectively—refer their after-hours and emergency business to Friendship, a common practice among District clinics.
And in addition to its quorum problem, the D.C. veterinary board has only two disciplinary measures at its disposal, suspension and revocation of licenses, neither of which the board has used since it reconvened in November 2003. All other measures, including fines, probations, consent agreements (in which an accused veterinarian admits to a violation in exchange for a lighter punishment), letters of reprimand, and required continuing education, are out of the board’s reach. The Virginia and Maryland boards, on the other hand, can and do choose from an arsenal of disciplinary tactics when taking action against their veterinarians.
According to DCRA records, Friendship has been quite prolific in racking up complaints. When the newly constituted veterinary board met in November 2003, there were eight complaints waiting for its review. Of the eight complaints, five involved veterinarians at Friendship, which is a high-volume clinic. An investigation in 2001 also found eight people practicing veterinary medicine at Friendship without a license. Glassman is quick to mention that there were “mitigating circumstances,” pointing out that the board concluded that those offenses weren’t actionable ones.
“Our hospital administration does most of that stuff,” says Glassman. “It’s the intern’s responsibility to get licensed. It’s obviously our responsibility to make sure they’ve gotten licensed, and we’re very careful about that.”
As for why Zollinger, who worked at Friendship from July 2002 to July 2003, did not receive her license until two months before she finished her internship (according to DCRA records, none of the four interns who composed Friendship’s class of 2002– 2003 received a license until at least four months after they started work), all Glassman will say is that Zollinger was “fully compliant with the regulations that were on the books with the city. The city was informed that she was working here, as it was with every intern before her.”
In May, Otto again flew in from Seattle for what he hoped would be both the first and last official vet-board meeting he’d ever have to attend. During the meeting, he and Bob sat beside each other, facing the board as they presented their case. Each board member had a copy of Hill’s investigation report, as well as all the supplementary information Otto and Bob had submitted, and leafed through it as Otto moved through his documents and showed the bottle of ketoprofen that Zollinger had prescribed.
“This is Coco here,” said Otto, holding up a framed photograph of a healthy cat, all ebony fluff and blue-green eyes. The photograph usually sits on Otto and Bob’s nightstand, alongside a container of Coco’s ashes.
“She’s a very regal, active cat,” Otto continued, his voice cracking. “She didn’t deserve to go the way she did.”
The board members sat quietly as Otto reviewed the expert testimony from Dr. Michael Berbert, Coco’s regular veterinarian in Gaithersburg, and Dr. Jerry Greene, a Florida veterinarian who’d agreed to review Coco’s case for Otto and Bob. Otto ran through the litany of examples of substandard care that Greene believed Coco had experienced at Friendship.
“In his opinion,” commented Merker, the board chair.
Otto paused a beat. “Yes,” he said slowly. “In his unbiased opinion.”
Once Otto and Bob finished, they took questions from the board. Wilson began by reminding Otto and Bob that a postmortem exam indicated Coco’s cancer.
“Yes, they found evidence of cancer,” said Otto. “But that doesn’t change the fact that what happened to her was wrong. If this hadn’t happened to her, we would have sought the best care possible for her.”
Merker’s eyes widened, and he shook his head as if shooing a mosquito. “You didn’t know before the necropsy that she had cancer?” he asked Otto.
“She actually had diffuse lung cancer,” said Merker pointedly. “It was severe.”
“I just want to make sure you’re clear on that,” said Merker. “Was this, uh, Bree-bar aware of any pre-existing conditions?”
There was a short discussion about whether or not Berbert should have taken a chest X-ray during one of Coco’s regular visits. “As a senior pathologist, he didn’t take a chest film?” Merker said with incredulity.
“He had no reason to,” said Otto. “Coco didn’t exhibit any pulmonary symptoms.”
“No,” interjected board member Wilson. “As a reasonable standard of care, we’d do that.”
Otto sighed in exasperation. “What’s your point?” he asked Merker.
Merker held up his hands in innocence. “I’d just like to know Coco’s standard of care before Friendship, that’s all,” he said.
“It was excellent,” snapped Bob. “But why are you asking this? Berbert’s clinic isn’t on trial here.”
“I’m just asking,” said Merker, before reminding Bob that this wasn’t a trial. “Now what about the communication problems with Friendship? I see they tried to contact you a couple times.”
He was referring to the trip Otto and Bob took after they left Coco at Friendship. “We tried to contact them the entire time,” Otto protested. “Is the insinuation that we just dropped off our cat?”
“Oh my God, no!” said Merker. “It looks like Friendship dropped the ball in communicating with you. They have a responsibility to inform you.”
“You obviously care about your cat,” echoed Wilson.
The board then asked if Otto and Bob had ever written a letter to Friendship after Coco died or contacted Glassman directly to voice their concerns.
“We didn’t think it was our role,” said Otto. “We didn’t think he’d be the guy to take our complaints to.”
“She was a doctor, you know,” said Wilson. “We can call ourselves that.”
Merker had one last question for Otto and Bob: “So, what would you like us to do?”
They told the board everything they’d wanted to ever since Coco died: Something should be done to ensure that the same mistake won’t happen again; people need to be forewarned about interns working on their pets; interns need to be supervised properly; laws need to be enforced; Friendship needs to be disciplined.
Merker put his palms on the table and said in a tone that indicated the end of the discussion, “We thank you for your time and presentation, and we’re sorry for your loss.”
Otto and Bob waited in the hallway while the board reviewed their case. A few minutes later, Otto and Bob were back in the meeting room, sitting expectantly as Merker announced the board’s decision. “Regarding Friendship Hospital for Animals, Peter Glassman, and Tawnia Zollinger—” he began.
Otto and Bob leaned forward.
“We’re going to defer the case for further deliberation,” finished Wilson. The board voted and the motion passed unanimously.
“Alex, Elisa, we’re planning on doing more investigation on our side and speak to offices in other states,” said Merker. “We’ll report back to you.”
“Wait, you’re going beyond our investigation?” asked Otto, still processing what had just happened.
“We don’t need any more information from you,” said Merker. “We’re assessing the entire complaint and will perform recommendations based on that information.”
The board moved into another executive session and Otto and Bob were shown out. Otto waited on a bench outside the DCRA building while his fiancée used the bathroom. “I thought this would be the end of it,” he said. “I thought they’d say they’ll fine them or try to fine them.”
He fell silent for a moment, replaying Merker’s voice in his head. “What the hell else do they need to investigate?” he wondered. “These guys have had this case for two years and two months. They have a file this thick, of our information and Patricia Hill’s information.” Otto held his thumb and forefinger 3 inches apart.
“It’s bubbling up in me,” he continued. “I’m getting angrier and angrier. It’s a justice denied.”CP
The Doctor Is Out
Dr. Jay H. Merker was appointed to the D.C. Board of Veterinary Examiners in January 2003. During his tenure on the board, he has faced at least two consumer complaints for his work at Georgetown’s Collins Hospital for Animals.
One involved an incident that occurred in 2001, in which a cat owner alleged that Merker administered a vaccination without the owner’s consent and without asking about the cat’s medical history. The cat subsequently developed an adverse reaction to the vaccine and did not eat or drink for three days, according to a complaint filed with the vet board.
The pet owner, whose identity was redacted from copies of the complaint provided by the city, wrote a letter to Dr. Lynne Cabaniss, the owner of Collins, regarding the quality of care and the unsolicited vaccination. The owner received a refund for the vaccination, but the letter apparently ruffled Merker’s feathers.
According to the complaint, the next time the pet owner visited Collins for the cat’s routine checkup, Merker confronted the owner for griping to his boss as soon as the owner entered the clinic. “His verbal assault initiated a heated conversation in the waiting room of the animal hospital—in full view of other customers,” wrote the owner. “Following my cat’s examination with her regular veterinarian, Dr. Merker again confronted me in the waiting room, this time to order me out-of-the-building and tell me not to return.”
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) investigated the confrontation and issued these conclusions: “[Cabaniss] gave no indication that Dr. Mercer [sic] was rebuked for his verbal treatment of a client,” a DCRA investigator wrote in her report. “Dr. Cabaniss also did not give any indication whether Dr. Mercer acknowledged taking a medical history of the patient.”
Merker did not respond to the DCRA’s interview requests, nor did he provide a written response to the complaint. The DCRA report was completed two weeks after Merker was named to the D.C. vet board.
Another case against Merker alleged unwanted and unnecessary surgery. A cat owner had felt some strange lumps on the underside of the cat and asked Merker for an assessment. Merker checked the area of the lumps and informed the owner that a biopsy was needed. The owner dropped off the cat for the procedure a few days later. Only when the owner picked up the cat did the owner learn that instead of a biopsy, the cat had received a full-chain mastectomy, a much more invasive—and expensive—procedure in which all mammary tissue from an entire row of the cat’s teats was removed. According to the complaint, a pathology report on the tissue taken from the full-chain mastectomy later indicated that “the changes in the mammary gland are considered benign….The changes in the lymph node are reactive and benign.”
The board eventually found no violation in both cases.
In the seven times that the board has met since 2003, Merker’s name has come up four times. Chris Runde, chair of the Maryland vet board, can’t think of any sitting Maryland board member who has drawn a consumer complaint. Says Runde: “That would be an uncomfortable situation.”
Unfortunately, in D.C., it’s a relatively common one, too. And when Merker is named in a complaint, it forces the board into an interesting bureaucratic dance.
In April 2005, for instance, the board reviewed an appeal of its dismissal of a Merker case. When the board got to Merker’s complaint, Merker recused himself from the proceedings. Once the other two board members, Wanda Wilson and Dorothy Gray, finished reviewing his case, Merker returned to the room.
After sitting back down, Merker called for a vote on his own case. First, with Merker watching, Gray moved that the board take no action, on the grounds that there was no violation of the law. Wilson seconded.
“Any discussion?” asked Merker.
Nope. Both Wilson and Gray voted in favor of taking no action. Merker abstained, of course.
According to the DCRA brain trust, there’s nothing wrong with that scenario. Though the D.C. board officially has five members, it currently operates with just its quorum of three. If any member doesn’t show up, the board can’t attend to official business. And when Merker leaves a meeting, that leaves only two board members. Linda Argo, the DCRA’s director of communications, says the board needs a quorum only to vote, not necessarily to deliberate. Even if one member is required to abstain, the fact that he’s sitting up there with two other members satisfies the agency’s quorum requirements. “And they voted when he re-entered the room,” says Argo.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Pilar Vergara.