Letter to dvm360: Dark shadows remain after years of drug use by former employer
Fear of blacklisting by community, colleagues kept doctor silent, and regrets linger.
Regarding “When the practice owner is the dark shadow”: Thank you for bringing this serious problem to light. I'd like to share my own experience in hope that further discussion of this topic, and perhaps some solutions, might come to pass.
As a new grad, I took a job at a rural practice with a much-loved and popular local veterinarian who had been in practice there for 25 years. We were a typical old school/new school pair of vets-he often opted to just try a steroid-antibiotic injection, while I would strive to promote a higher standard of care by using diagnostics.
Because the area was a potpourri of different types of people-some well off, some struggling financially-we organically reached a reasonable division of clients between us: He kept the ones he had seen for years or who had severe financial restrictions, and I took the clients who were interested in a long-term wellness approach and not a quick fix.
After several months it became apparent that this doctor was radically different in actions and attitudes on certain days, and along with the discrepancies in the outdated drug logs, I put two and two together and realized he had a major problem with ketamine, along with various other pharmaceuticals. Like many addicts, he was quite effective at both denial and gaslighting when confronted, leading to a nonresolution of this problem other than to manage the clinic around his addiction. At the time I was the only associate and felt leaving was not an option, because so many animals needed me to counteract poor care from him. In addition the office manager and technician staff begged me to try to work the problem out rather than report him, because they were terrified of losing their jobs.
At one point I was hopeful that resolution would come after he got a DUI and the state board mandated supervision. This was carried out by a veterinarian from another practice who sometimes visited, reviewed drug logs, quizzed the staff and monitored our daily routine. The practice owner was subject to random drug testing by the county. Guess what? County drug tests don't include ketamine. He became crafty, able to sneak the tip of an insulin needle under the metal cover of unopened bottles, then replace the missing solution with something else. This became obvious when animals who should have been anesthetized weren't.
When animal surgeries or treatments went wrong, I felt certain that this would result in a suspension of his license, or at least an inquiry that would require him to stop practicing. But no one ever reported him. This is still astonishing to me. I tried to approach the supervising veterinarian with my concerns, and he told me to keep documenting the drug log. He never mentioned it again.
After randomly answering a phone call from a supplier one day, I realized he was obtaining drugs from many distributors. This happened to coincide with a conversation I had with a local client at a bar-restaurant one night. Not a bit sober at the time, the client informed me that “everyone knew they could get drugs from Doc.”
I braced myself for another confrontation. When this came to pass, I had documentation of drugs missing and discrepancies in the drug log. His response was to act shocked and tell me he would respond to this issue immediately. He called a staff meeting the next day and accused staff members of stealing drugs. He insisted that all staff members submit a urine sample for analysis that day. We were never notified of the results.
A couple of weeks later, a client who was doing some construction at his house told me that all of the urine samples were in the refrigerator in his shed. He was using our urine samples to pass his drug tests. It was the last straw, and I left the practice.
Throughout this whole drama I documented every event and conversation and mailed it all to myself via registered mail. I figured the unopened letters with tracking would be a good way to document to the state board, judge or jury that I was trying to do the right thing should any legal issues arise.
That was ten years ago, and the practice is still open today. It is well-known that he has a drug problem and that many animals have been hurt or died because of him. Multiple clients have left the practice, but he is still practicing medicine.
Why did I not report him to the authorities, you ask? As I mentioned before, he was a well-loved member of the community. Despite his addiction he has a heart of gold, and animals that needed care got care at that hospital, regardless of the clients' ability to pay. I recall people coming in to pay 10 dollars a week toward their bill. Many never paid, and he lost thousands of dollars each year but kept on giving reduced-cost or free care. I still admire him for that altruism.
If I had reported him, I would have been blacklisted by the community where I lived and practiced. It would have been a very high-profile case. As a “tattletale,” would I have been shut out of the entire veterinary community and never been able to get another job? How could I have reported it anonymously? I have encouraged people whose animals have been hurt by the practice to file a formal complaint, but they don't. The supervising veterinarian did nothing. He likely felt the same as I did: unable to take the chance that whistleblowing would end his career.
This still haunts me today, as I now see animals that have been hurt by his bad surgeries and misdiagnoses. How many animals have died because I've been silent? I believe that I am a good veterinarian, but sometimes I feel like a sad excuse for a person who let fear get in the way of doing the right thing.
I would like to make this story known and start the conversation so that this does not happen to other new grads. I am in tears as I write this 10 years after it all happened and hoping I have the courage to hit send. There are people who, if they read this, will know exactly who I am talking about. I am worried that I will be judged, but maybe I deserve it. I also worry that if nonveterinarians read something like this, the whole profession will be judged, and I feel like we have been undeservedly judged enough that our self-esteem as a profession is suffering.
Thank you to whoever managed to wade through this long story, and thank you to dvm360 for bringing up important topics like this one.