The last time Dr. Allan Zarkin made a public appearance in New York was on Feb. 9, when he slid into a sedan outside the Manhattan Criminal Court and sped away from the mob of reporters and TV producers who were covering his arraignment.
Earlier that day, Dr. Zarkin had tried to sneak quietly out of the courtroom, but just when he had made a clean getaway, his lawyers hauled him back before the judge. “Dr. Zorro,” the man who carved “AZ” on a female patient, had forgotten to sign his own court papers.
Friends said they then didn’t see Dr. Zarkin for weeks. But The Observer found him in Florida, where he had been lying low, visiting his 88-year-old father. When The Observer called, Phillip Zarkin picked up the phone and said he was just as shocked by his son’s behavior as Dr. Zarkin’s patients were.
“I don’t know what happened, I just don’t know what made him do it,” said Mr. Zarkin, a retired kosher poultry worker from the Bronx who now lives in Fort Lauderdale. “He’s a wonderful son, a wonderful doctor. There’s nothing I know of that would have led to this.”
Sources, however, have told The Observer that the sordid Zorro episode was just the latest in series of disturbing incidents involving the doctor that stretch back years. Apparently, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is hearing the same thing. According to law enforcement sources, some two dozen women patients and doctors have contacted the D.A.’s office, reporting incidents of “bizarre,” “distracted” and just plain “weird” actions by the doctor.
“So far we’ve received about 24 complaints on Zarkin,” said Linda Fairstein, chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit, which is handling his case. She would not provide details of the complaints.
However, a law enforcement source said some of the callers have raised a common theme: drugs. The Observer has learned that Dr. Zarkin quit two high-profile posts at New York University Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital Center in the late 1970′s, a period when he was stoned on painkillers and failed to show up for office visits and surgeries.
“He had a serious drug problem,” said Kenneth Platzer, his lawyer in the civil lawsuit filed in the Dr. Zorro incident. Dr. Zarkin himself did not return numerous phone calls for comment.
The drug problem could not have surfaced at a worse time for Dr. Zarkin. His attorneys are interested in a plea bargain with the D.A.’s office. To get a deal, they are going to need to prove that there was something wrong-in the strict medical sense-with their man’s brain.
At first, they claimed Dr. Zarkin suffered from “Pick’s disease,” a debilitating ailment that short-circuits brain activity and causes severe mood swings. But recently, after the results of a brain scan didn’t back up their claim, they ditched the Pick’s defense and opted for a vaguer diagnosis. “It’s some kind of an Alzheimer’s-like condition,” said Mr. Platzer.
The lawyers have scheduled another, more detailed round of brain tests next week to narrow down the range of possible diseases. The results should be ready just in time for Dr. Zarkin’s preliminary hearing in criminal court on March 14.
Even if Dr. Zarkin can escape punishment, his profession may not. He has become the poster boy for a renewed push to make doctors’ professional records fully public.
“Dr. Zorro has become the McDonald’s coffee cup of the whole medical accountability debate,” said Martin Brennan, policy director for the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, which is backing a bill that would post health department disciplinary files on the Internet. “Zarkin’s personified the whole accountability problem in a really graphic way.”
It would seem, based on numerous interviews The Observer conducted to piece together the details of Dr. Zarkin’s life, that accountability is indeed the missing link. How else could Dr. Zarkin have managed to slip by so many people?
One answer is that weird surgeons are so common, people hardly notice them, unless they do something so crazy they’re forced to. “It’s not unusual to have a surgeon who’s eccentric; they get away with anything,” said a midwife who worked with Dr. Zarkin. “You know, that doctor-is-God kind of shit. I mean, you’ve got doctors who kill patients, so who’s gonna pay attention to someone who’s just kind of weird?”
That’s fine-unless you happened to be one of his patients. “Nobody did anything to protect us,” said Marilyn Mode, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information, a longtime Zarkin patient who was so angry she could hardly speak. “Nobody ever reported any of this stuff to the state until it was too late. I mean, they talk about a blue wall of silence; well, what do those guys wear? Scrubs? Blue surgical scrubs? Well, they have this blue scrubs wall of silence.”
A Chronic Yenta
Many surgeons are oddballs, but Dr. Zarkin has long lingered in the boggy no-man’s land between eccentricity and looniness.
“Zarkin was always kind of weird,” said a former colleague who worked with him in the Beth Israel Medical Center delivery room. “He would always be saying these wildly inappropriate things, but he did his job. At some point, though, he must have lost his marbles.”
Exactly when that was, no one can say. Longtime friends of the doctors claim, contrary to his bizarre “Zorro” image, Dr. Zarkin has always been a touchy-feely type, a serial talker with a penchant for getting himself wrapped up in other people’s lives-whether they wanted him there or not. That he became a dinner companion of Liana Gedz, the 31-year-old dentist he is charged with carving up, doesn’t shock anyone who really knows him.
“Whether you are talking about a disease or his basic yenta personality-it’s hard to say,” said a friend who has known him for more than 40 years. When asked to describe the doctor’s hobbies, the friend replied: “talking.”
Allan Zarkin was raised in the middle-class Pelham Parkway neighborhood, a leafy enclave of striving Jewish boys and their hovering mothers. Growing up in the 1950′s, Allan was a bright and normal kid, his father said. By all accounts, the doctor took after his mother, Ruthie, whom neighbors recall as loud, charming and, like the doctor, prone to say the first thing that popped into her head.
Her three boys made her proud, hitting the Pelham Parkway trifecta: Allan became a doctor and the other two boys became lawyers.
Steven Zarkin, the second-youngest, rose to prominence as the principal law clerk for outspoken Bronx Supreme Court Judge Burton Roberts, who was the model for Tom Wolfe’s gavel-busting jurist in Bonfire of the Vanities . In 1988, Mr. Zarkin earned an appointment as a Housing Court judge. “He was a regular Bronx Democrat,” recalled Justice Roberts. “They were the ones who helped him on the race.”
But his tenure on the bench was tragically brief. In 1991, Mr. Zarkin, a former serviceman with a tough-guy’s profane streak, died of AIDS. It was a loss Dr. Zarkin took very hard, friends say.
The youngest Zarkin boy, Fred, founded a successful personal injury firm that brought so many cases against the city he has earned the sobriquet “Pothole King.”
Dr. Zarkin, too, has seen his fair share of rough pavement. In the late 1960′s, he attended medical school in Chicago, returning to New York for his ob-gyn residency at Bellevue in 1970. He was apparently in a partying mood, sharing his medicine chest with friends from the old neighborhood. “He wrote prescriptions, mostly Quaaludes,” said a childhood buddy from the Bronx, who recalled visiting Dr. Zarkin at his apartment in Kips Bay, which he shared with his Irish setter. “We heard that he later had a problem with drugs.” [Mr. Platzer, Dr. Zarkin's attorney, said he had no comment on the prescription allegation.]
According to sources close to the disgraced surgeon, Dr. Zarkin developed a nasty addiction to Talwin, a potent painkiller he began taking to deal with a painful infection of his heart lining. The drug-also known as “T” or “poor man’s heroin”-produces a euphoric high and can lead to hallucinations and delusions if abused over many years.
In 1975, the doctor seemed on the fast track to establishing a major reputation, earning attending physician privileges at Bellevue, where he had served as chief ob-gyn resident, and a prestigious clinical professorship at N.Y.U.’s medical school. But before long, Talwin took over and the 37-year-old doctor began blowing off his duties.
“He was absolutely hooked on the stuff,” said an associate who is familiar with Dr. Zarkin’s professional history. “He basically stopped showing up for work. He got down to 108 pounds, it consumed his life. It was a nightmare, it took him years, years to recover.”
Recently, investigators have gotten wind of the old problem.
“We got a call from a physician who knew him for years, saying that, basically, his problem wasn’t a brain problem, that the problem was drug addiction,” a senior law enforcement official told The Observer .
Dr. Zarkin’s condition never made it onto any of his professional records. But by August 1976 he resigned both jobs.
For the next two years, the doctor didn’t lift a scalpel, lingering in drug treatment programs, friends and associates told The Observer . From there, it was a slow road back, starting at abortion clinics until the early 80′s, when he began working for HIP Health Plans, the giant health-maintenance organization, at Beekman-Downtown Hospital in lower Manhattan.
Around that time, Dr. Zarkin also made his way out to Queens, where he began performing abortions for Choices Women’s Medical Center, the Queens women’s clinic he retreated to last year as medical director after carving his initials into Dr. Gedz. By the early 90′s, the doctor had made it back to respectability, earning attending privileges at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and its sister hospital, Beth Israel.
Still, he couldn’t quite escape controversy. In the spring of 1991, Dr. Zarkin, who was still working with HIP, admitted the 18-year-old Malanie Valentin into the St. Luke’s obstetrics unit to deliver her first baby. As the hours of labor dragged by, Ms. Valentin, who had suffered no complications during the pregnancy, would not dilate, according to Ms. Valentin’s mother, Mildred Mora, who was present for the whole ordeal.
Mrs. Mora said she was struck by Dr. Zarkin’s nonchalance. She said she was particularly alarmed when the doctor disappeared for more than an hour at the height of her daughter’s trouble. “He was just walking around, not paying attention,” she recalled. “He seemed very, very relaxed. The nurses were complaining, they were saying he was taking too long, waiting too long, that we should do a C-section right away.”
Instead, according to Mrs. Mora, Dr. Zarkin opted for a natural delivery, a decision medical experts say was a legitimate, if questionable, judgment call. At some point, Mrs. Mora said, the baby became lodged in the birth canal and was deprived of oxygen. When the baby finally emerged, the oxygen tank in the room turned out not to be functioning, she said.
As a result, according to Mrs. Mora, the little girl, Desiree, suffered frightful brain damage and had to be fed through a tube. The eight-month-old died in her grandmother’s house on Dec. 6, 1991. “I don’t even like to think about it,” Mrs. Mora said.
The Mora family filed suit against Dr. Zarkin in 1993, but dropped the case after the baby died. The reason was simple, according to lawyers who worked on the case: Under a quirk in New York State law, plaintiffs recover next to nothing in wrongful death cases involving infants.
Dr. Zarkin couldn’t be reached for comment and his lawyers said they didn’t have enough information to respond to the allegations.
Mrs. Mora, who has been following the Zorro case carefully, said she regrets that Dr. Gedz didn’t take Dr. Zarkin to trial-and that his damages were paid entirely by his malpractice insurance company. “I’m just sorry they settled,” she said. “But at least somebody got him into court.”
Dr. Zarkin’s best hope in the criminal trial is the bad-brains defense, but that means having to prove that his behavior is the result of some medical condition-and one that came on suddenly.
So far, that tack has encouraged a swift resolution in the civil case. In February, Dr. Zarkin relinquished his license to practice medicine. But it was his malpractice insurance company that paid all of the $1.75 million settlement to Dr. Gedz, who has called upon District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to drop the criminal charges.
Dr. Zarkin’s lawyers told The Observer they are confident they’ll be able to convince a skeptical Mr. Morgenthau with their arguments. But it may be a very hard sell.
According to state Department of Health investigators, Dr. Zarkin’s bizarre behavior dates back at least to early 1999, when he began making strange sexual comments while performing surgery and inexplicably tugged hard on a newborn’s arms moments after delivering the child. But the D.A.’s office has received complaints that date back seven years.
And if Dr. Zarkin has lost his wits, it’s a come-and-go kind of madness. At his Feb. 9 arraignment, the doctor certainly seemed sane, if a tad absentminded. In the elevator ride down, a patient of his, a heavy-set woman in her 30′s, jammed herself between the doctor and reporters who were straining to pick up any scrap of overheard conversation.
“I just love you,” she said.
“Thank you, darling,” the doctor replied, flashing a bit of the old charm.
Dr. Zarkin’s saner side was also in evidence last December when he took a group of doctors and administrators on a tour of
Choices shortly after he was fired by Beth Israel. “He was very together, very personable, very excited about showing us exactly what the place did,” recalled Frank Monk, who runs a clinic in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “A really charming guy. His affect was appropriate; on a social level there were absolutely no signs that anything was wrong with him.”
Around that same time, Dr. Zarkin had the presence of mind to sue his ex-partners at New York Gynecological and Obstetrical Associates for $50,000 after they kicked him out over the Zorro incident. The case is still pending.
Beth Israel’s brass also claim they had no reason to believe Dr. Zarkin was cracking up. In March 1999, they approved Dr. Zarkin’s re-application for attending physician privileges, which included a form attesting to his physical and mental fitness filled out by an unnamed doctor at N.Y.U. “Everything was fine as of last March,” said Jim Mandler, a Beth Israel spokesman.
Dr. Zarkin is reportedly back in the city. Friends said he has been in a state of shock, spending most of his time in his Sutton Place apartment, leaving only to go to the movies and his lawyer’s office.
“He’s basically a train wreck,” said a friend who has been in daily contact with him. “There’s a big disconnect between him and the whole incident. There are times when he is shocked by everyone’s reaction to the whole thing.
“He’ll be in denial, he’ll say things like, ‘I don’t see what the problem is, I delivered a good little baby.’”
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