HOLLY SPRINGS, Ga. -
She wanted answers… and an apology.
But a pet owner received neither from a Holly Springs veterinarian who used a cutting-edge medical procedure on a dog with disastrous results.
In August, 2015, Erin Drumm brought her rescue pit mix Casanova to My Pets Vet in Holly Springs. Casanova was 11 years old, suffering from arthritis. Erin agreed to let the veterinarian, Dr. Walton Waller, give Casanova oxygen therapy by putting the dog inside a hyperbaric chamber in the clinic. Each session lasted about an hour.
"He was able to move a little bit better at first," remembered Erin. "But again, I don't know if it was the oxygen or the medications."
Some athletes have sworn by oxygen therapy. Hospitals across the country have successfully used hyperbaric chambers, sometimes to treat burn victims. The 100-percent oxygen is supposed to help stimulate growth and repair damaged blood vessels.
Casanova's last visit to My Pets Vet would be August 22, 2015. Erin and her four-year-old son were waiting in a separate room for the session to end when they heard a noise -- then a scream -- then rushed to evacuate the clinic along with Dr. Waller.
"He told me there was an accident with Casanova and… that... And I said is he OK?" Erin remembered asking. "And he said no. He's not OK. He didn't make it. And that's where he told me the chamber had exploded."
The hyperbaric chamber had somehow caught fire with Casanova still inside. According to a Holly Springs police and Cherokee County fire investigation, a battery operated fan likely ignited the saturated oxygen. Dr. Waller told investigators he was the one who placed the fan inside the chamber because he wanted to keep things cool, something he had done "on himself numerous times."
"After I found out I felt like my heart had just been ripped out of my chest," Erin recounted.
According to the report, Dr. Waller said Casanova must have done "something to start the fire inside the chamber."
"Dr. Waller blamed your dog," pointed out FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.
Investigators ultimately determined that Casanova's death was an accident and no charges were ever filed. But inside the many pages of the case file, the FOX 5 I-Team came across a startling fact. According to the manufacturer, that hyperbaric chamber should never have been used.
The hyperbaric chamber that Dr. Waller bought was second-hand, a device that had been in use since 1989. The investigative pictures showed a Crawford Long hospital decal on the outside. The manufacturer, Sechrist Industries, emailed investigators "we have no record of this chamber ever having a cylinder replacement (overhaul). Based on the guidelines, this chamber must not be utilized for clinical use since the cylinder is over 20 years old."
Dr. Waller declined to talk to the FOX 5 I-Team about whether he knew his used hyperbaric chamber should not have been involved in treating anyone, even pets.
We found plenty of used hyperbaric chambers for sale online. There are no certifications required to operate such a device.
"It blows my mind that somebody can be in possession of a piece of equipment that can cause such damage, and there's no regulation for it," complained Erin.
Casanova was not the first animal to die in a hyperbaric chamber accident. In 2012, an explosion claimed the life of a technician in Ocala, Florida as she was treating a horse with oxygen therapy. Investigators believe the horse's steel shoes somehow created a spark to ignite the oxygen... and cause the building to explode.
The University Of Florida School Of Veterinary medicine started conducting clinical trials with its own hyperbaric chamber to judge whether oxygen therapy truly helps an animal.
Dr. Waller already faced complaints to the state board of veterinary medicine over how he investigated the deaths of two puppies customers bought from Petland of Kennesaw, where he served as the preferred veterinarian.
Now, the Holly Springs Police Department and Erin Drumm have added their own complaints to that list.
"When my son started asking where Casanova was, I didn't know what to say," Erin remembered. "So I told him that when we were outside some angels came and got him. So they could go play ball. Dr Waller never called us. He never said I'm sorry. He never said how are you doing?"
A Sechrist Industries spokesperson told the FOX 5 I-Team using an out-of-date chamber would not likely have led to a fire on its own. The company does not approve of putting any metal foreign object inside the chamber, especially a battery-operated fan that can create a spark.