In June 1970, in the thick of the Vietnam War, anti-war demonstrators upset over the invasion of Cambodia took over a U.S. Navy building in Evanston, Ill. and beat 20-year-old Ensign Gary Zambito into unconsciousness.
Injuries from that attack forced the young law officer out of the armed services and caused him health problems for the next 50 years, including fainting spells, heart irregularities and high blood pressure.
Now in his 70s, Zambito turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs, specifically the Northport VA hospital on Long Island, for treatment he needed and was qualified to receive. But instead of getting better, he nearly ended up dead from a combination of misdiagnoses and neglect, according to a federal lawsuit and the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs.
Zambito sued the federal government for $4 million, the outcome of which is pending. The government has denied any wrongdoing, but the U.S. Attorney’s office in Central Islip has taken up a criminal investigation into malfeasance at the clinic, according to sources, which could result in criminal charges. The U.S. Attorney’s office would not confirm a criminal investigation, but The News saw emails indicating a probe has been opened.
His ordeal with the Northport VA hospital began in December 2015 when Zambito, a Long Island resident, went to there for a cardiology referral to treat increasingly frequent fainting spells that ended in blackouts, according to court papers.
“Mr. Zambito came to Northport VAMC as a Veteran with disabilities in need of proper medical care,” Benjamin P. Pomerance, a deputy director of the state VA liaison office, wrote in a February 2019 email to the hospital’s administrators. Zambito was referred to Pomerance by a veterans’ law clinic.
“What Mr. Zambito got instead from Northport VAMC was lies, broken promises, negligence, misconduct, further physical injuries, extraordinary mental strain and exhaustion, a set of multiple falsified medical records, an attending urologist whom Mr. Zambito simply cannot trust any longer, and cancerous tumors on Mr. Zambito’s kidneys that were never properly medically treated by the Northport VAMC despite the fact that treatment was readily available.”
The Veterans’ Administration and Northport VA hospital declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
Zambito told doctors at the Northport VA hospital that the 1970 attack had left him with heart irregularities, and that after tests he was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, an abnormally rapid heart rhythm. But, Zambito said in interviews and court records, doctors could not identify the cause of the fainting spells and he crashed onto sidewalks 18 times, injuring his eye, face, hands and knees. He said questions about the possibility of a relationship between his heart condition and fainting were ignored.
In his complaint to the VA, Pomerance wrote, “These injuries would have been avoided if the cardiology unit had diagnosed Mr. Zambito appropriately and treated him accordingly, rather than summarily dismissing him from their care,”
After three years of struggling with the VA hospital, the veteran said he went to a private doctor, who gave him an electrocardiogram and determined that his heart condition, which resulted from the attack, could be treated with a drug called Flecanide Acetate. It was prescribed on March 11, 2017, and quickly eliminated the fainting problem, he said.
“If they had given me that medication 14 months earlier, I would never have had those 18 (fainting spells) and never have suffered my five permanently disabling injuries, which are all service related because they were caused by the attack on the naval facility,” Zambito said.
Still, Zambito said he kept seeking help at Northport because he could not afford private care. He was now walking with crutches, and using braces for his neck, right arm and hand and a patch on his right eye but relied on public transportation because he could not afford to use car services.
During the course of his cardiology treatment, tests showed growths on his kidneys and doctors prescribed surgery. Zambito said that urologist Dr. John Fitzgerald told him that because of his heart condition, removing the tumors under general anesthesia could be fatal. So, Zambito said, the doctor referred him to a private clinic, which he co-owned, for treatment under local anesthesia.
But, Zambito said, when he showed up for the procedure it was scheduled for general anesthesia.
"Had this surgery proceeded as scheduled, I would have been placed at risk of life-altering negative consequence, perhaps even death,” he told The News.
Zambito claims that after confronting him, the doctor began missing appointments but stated in records that the veteran was the “no show.” Zambito said on one trip to the Northport VA hospital he waited 8 hours, only to be told, without explanation, that the doctor was not available.
Ultimately, the doctor told Zambito the cancerous tumors could not be treated using local anesthesia, according to correspondence between the state and VA administrators. Pomerance noted in correspondence to the VA that verbally and in writing, the doctor used the word “impossible” to describe the chances of any medical provider offering this treatment to Zambito.
Fitzgerald deferred comment to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Zambito’s dire circumstances drove him to find a treatment, and he ended up in Manhattan at the VA hospital on E. 23rd St. He said that within a couple of hours he was scheduled for treatment at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.
“Had Mr. Zambito not taken these additional steps on his own, he would still be waiting for this medically necessary procedure without the slightest hope for resolution from the doctors and other medical leaders whom he was supposed to trust as experts in his care,” Pomerance told the VA in an email.