Champion family doctors testify in suicide case filed against them

By Ed Runyan


Dr. Frank G. Veres and his son, Dr. Zachary F. Veres, took the witness stand Wednesday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to discuss the treatment they gave Michael Ecker of Champion, who served in the military in Iraq and committed suicide in August 2009 while under the care of the physicians.

The testimony was heard during the third day of a trial arising from a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Ecker’s father, Matthew Ecker of Champion, who seeks monetary damages from the doctors, saying they failed to administer adequate care to his 25-year-old son.

Testimony in the trial before Judge Ronald Rice concluded Wednesday afternoon. Closing arguments and deliberations are expected this afternoon.

The father-and-son doctors, whose offices are on Mahoning Avenue in Champion, handled monthly office visits for Michael Ecker, each handling some of them from January 2009 until Aug. 17, 2009 — 11 days before Michael Ecker died.

Frank Veres, the elder physician, testified that he had no concerns about Michael Ecker’s mental health during the first visit in January, despite diagnosing Ecker as having depression and renewing a prescription for a depression-fighting drug.

In March, however, Ecker expressed dissatisfaction with the prescription he was on, so Veres added a second one, the doctor testified.

Veres had asked Michael Ecker to bring him the records from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had treated him earlier for back, knee and foot pain and depression, but Ecker had not provided them, Veres said.

“It’s always nice to have them, but there comes a time when you have to move on,” Veres said of the records. “We felt he was still stable.”

Ecker did not appear to be suicidal during routine conversations during visits in March and June.

When asked by his attorney, Thomas Prislipsky, if he thinks he met the “standard of care” expected of family doctors such as him with regard to Michael Ecker’s mental health, Dr. Frank Veres said yes, because “I didn’t see anything suicidal.”

In cross-examination by Matthew Ecker’s attorney, Brian Kopp, the doctor discussed the expansion of the practice in 2009 to include cosmetic procedures such as Botox and laser peels and the significant amount of training he underwent to become certified in that area.

In addition to his family practice, urgent care and a specialization in sports medicine, he also served as medical director for several hospitals, he said.

Dr. Zachary Veres, under cross-examination by Kopp, said he gave a “general evaluation” to Michael Ecker during appointments in July and August but made no notations in the file regarding Ecker’s mental health because he found nothing unusual.

He does refer patients to a psychiatrist if they show signs of paranoia or are “unable to deal with life,” Zach Veres said, but that was not the case with Michael Ecker, he said.

Among the witnesses Tuesday were Dr. Michael S. Klinkman of Ann Arbor, Mich., hired by attorneys for Matthew Ecker, who said he thinks the doctors Veres failed to provide adequate care.

Kopp asked Dr. Klinkman to comment on the notes the doctors wrote into Michael Ecker’s chart from January to August 2009 regarding the medications they prescribed and the diagnoses they had made.

Dr. Klinkman noted a lack of information regarding the reasons the physicians had prescribed several medications for mental-health issues, such as comments from the patient regarding problems he was having.

The doctors failed to take necessary steps to acquire VA records, Dr. Klinkman said.

If a patient fails to bring important records from a previous physician to his new physician, the new physician should tell the patient he has one month to find a new physician, Dr. Klinkman said.

“That was disappointing to me that neither of the doctors Veres thought they needed that information,” Dr. Klinkman said of the VA records.

Dr. Klinkman agreed that family physicians such as Zachary and Frank Veres “frequently treat patients with major depression” like Michael Ecker and that the percentage of family physicians handling mental-health issues is increasing.

But Dr. Klinkman said he thinks the “complex mood disorder” Michael Eckman had “would suggest having him evaluated by a psychiatrist.”

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