The mother for a 27-year-old U.S. Army veteran who died of a drug overdose while at Miami’s Veterans Affairs Hospital drug rehabilitation center last year says no one told her exactly how her son died.
The mother of Nicholas Todd Cutter, whose June 2013 death was detailed in a recent VA Inspector General’s Report, says officials told her they believed he might have choked on a sandwich.
“I feel like I sent him to the dogs, geez. I sent him to the program to get help,” Mary Zielinski, of Boynton Beach, told Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 in an interview aired Friday night.
Zielinski told WFOR reporter Jim DeFede that she did not know the details surrounding his death until he showed her the IG’s report during a recent interview.
“Oh wow,” Zielinski said as she leafed through the report, her hands trembling, tears trickling down her cheeks. “Never did I think this was going to happen to him.”
The IG’s office released its scathing report more than a month ago, detailing problems at the drug rehabilitation program at the Miami VA — including a failure to monitor patients, provide sufficient staff, control access to the facility or even curb illicit drug use among patients.
Zielinski, through an attorney, declined any further interviews. “The report from the IG was like ripping the scab off the wounds that were fairly closed,” said her attorney, Joe Landy, of West Palm Beach. “This is not a natural death. A child is not supposed to die before their parents.”
VA spokesman Shane Suzuki, in a statement Friday, did not directly address Zielinski’s allegations, saying that the VA had “reached out to the family, who was offered bereavement counseling at both the West Palm Beach and Miami VA Healthcare Systems.”
In recent days, since Zielinksi learned the details of her son’s death, the VA has again “reached out” to the family to “learn how we can improve the process of helping families cope with the tragic loss of their loved ones,” he said.
“Our hearts and thoughts continue to go out to the family and friends who lost a loved one,” he said.
The IG investigators found security lapses — including broken surveillance cameras, inconsistent searches for contraband and staff members who were frequently absent instead of monitoring patients. The report revealed a failure to control access to the facility and curb access to illegal drugs to veterans in the program. Inspectors were able to enter the facility without any authorization.
The VA’s residential drug rehab program features 24 beds and is aimed at treating veterans for alcohol and drug abuse.
Patients are allowed to leave the facility overnight and for weekends, but only with a pass. During the day, the veterans can leave without a pass for up to two hours, but must report where they go.
Inspectors found the staff members did properly monitor the patients’ comings and goings. The patients themselves routinely failed to properly fill out logs detailing their trips.
Cutter was admitted to the VA’s psychological rehab program in 2012. He had joined the Army’s 232nd Engineer Company in January 2007 at age 20 and was discharged in February 2010. He served more than a year in Iraq — not Afghanistan, as initially reported in the IG’s report.
According to the report, Cutter was diagnosed with substance dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep apnea, mood disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
His mother said Cutter’s military vehicles had been hit by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, three times.
“I do know that he had a battle buddy die in his arms and it affected him a great deal,” Zielinski told WFOR.
When Cutter returned to work with his mother at the family’s Boynton Beach restaurant, “he became paranoid and he didn’t want to be around people,” she said.
Cutter began taking scores of medications — and illegal drugs — to help him battle his condition. Zielinski said she pushed him to enter the VA program in Miami.
“I thought it was something he truly needed and would help him,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to hurt him.”
Once admitted in 2012, Cutter tested positive for drugs and alcohol while in the psychological rehabilitation program.
In 2013, according to the IG’s report, he bounced among programs before winding up at the drug rehab program.
He again tested positive for cocaine, leading staff to forbid him from leaving the program overnight or on weekends. But Cutter was still allowed to leave for two hours.
The day before his death, Cutter left the program for several hours. Upon his return, he did not test positive for alcohol but patients told inspectors that he was high on drugs and needed help getting into bed.
The next day, June 1, 2013, Cutter was found dead in his room. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled he died of acute cocaine and heroin toxicity.
“I trusted them,” Zielinski said. “I trusted them to take care of him.”