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Doctors Behaving Badly: Florida cardiologist gets caught fibbing in federal case

Doctors Behaving Badly: Florida cardiologist gets caught fibbing in federal case

Picture of William Heisel

Medical malpractice cases can live or die on the testimony of an expert witness. Defense
attorneys will go after the expert's credentials with every tool in their kit.

One would think that plaintiff's attorneys suing the federal government on behalf of a
patient would make sure they had a doctor with impeccable experience ready to take the stand and bolster the patient's case.

Instead, they hired Dr. Alex T. Zakharia.

In 2003, a patient of the Veterans Administration hospital in Ann Arbor sued the VA after a coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG). Zakharia was hired by the patient's attorneys to testify as a CABG expert.

The U.S. attorneys defending the VA did not have to go far to find flaws with Zakharia's credentials. They started simply by asking him about them.

Zakharia told U.S. attorneys in a deposition that he had performed "a couple of hundred" CABG surgeries between 1995 and 2002. Assuming 200 surgeries, that works out to around 30 a year. Not a huge number, but perhaps enough to keep a surgeon from getting rusty.

The U.S. attorneys then took the step that too many reporters fail to. They actually checked that statement. They called the hospitals where Zakharia said he had done the surgeries and found "he had performed no coronary artery bypass graft surgeries between 1996 and the end of 2002; he was not the attending surgeon on, and did not write or sign the operative note for, any coronary artery bypass graft surgeries during that time; and the hospital records which defendant asserted were wrong were, in fact, substantially correct."

This is what the attorneys said in their indictment of Zakharia in 2006. They charged him with mail fraud, wire fraud and false declaration, a rare move that caught the attention of the American Medical Association. In September 2007, Zakharia pleaded guilty to contempt of court and agreed to stop practicing medicine. He also agreed to the unusual penalty of writing a letter for publication in a medical journal declaring that he had given false testimony.

But then Zakharia had second thoughts.

The Miami Herald's John Dorschner wrote a great story in 2008 about how Zakharia was continuing to practice months after agreeing to give up his license.

He filed papers in court saying he was ''very regretful'' of his plea deal and asked U.S. District Court Judge Paul Borman to allow him ''to continue assisting other people'' through his medical practice.

Prosecutor Lynn Helland responded in a filing that the U.S. Attorney's Office had agreed to the plea deal ''to protect future patients from defendant's incompetence as a surgeon.''

Dorschner reported that, aside from possibly perjuring himself, Zakharia had other problems that made him a poor choice as an expert witness, especially in a case against the VA.

A 1986 article in the Sun-Sentinel reported that while he was the heart surgeon at the VA Medical Center in Miami, nearly three times as many heart surgery patients died as the VA's national average. Zakharia told The Miami Herald last year that those numbers were inaccurate.

... In Miami-Dade, Zakharia sued Cedars Medical Center, complaining the hospital had unfairly suspended him from its staff. The hospital replied in court that it needed to ''protect the life and well-being of patients'' as it investigated 22 of his cases, which included ''numerous patient deaths.''

Zakharia also may have had physical impairments that put his patients at risk, Dorschner reported.

At one point, Zakharia filed papers asking that the [VA] case be moved to Miami because he had physical problems that made it dangerous for him to fly. He submitted papers from his doctors that indicated he may have suffered two strokes and suffered ''progressive difficulties with his memory.''

Finally, in April 2009, he agreed to voluntarily relinquish his license to the Florida Department of Health. Still no word on when that letter about his false court testimony is going to be published.

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