Dr. Constance Goldberg is a heroine to neighbor John Gardner: He credits the 37-year-old pediatrician with twice saving his infant son's life during emergency visits to her part-time home office in the exclusive Wilton Woods neighborhood of Fairfax County.
"She's saved several lives in this neighborhood," confirmed Victoria Dunn, a neighbor and mother of four youngsters who have been Goldberg's patients. "She's an outstanding humanitarian."
Other neighbors, however, said her practice was a nuisance. And Tuesday night, it was just such emergency trips to Goldberg's Fort Hill Drive home that contributed to the county Board of Zoning Appeals decision not to renew her office zoning permit. Responding to mostly older residents who complained that such unscheduled visits violated the 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. hours of operation the zoning board had imposed, Goldberg's home office was closed down by a 3-to-3 tie board vote.
"I've been put through a bureaucratic nightmare," said Goldberg, who said that she and her husband, Mark, spent $35,000 remodeling the ground floor of her three-story house to bring it up to county health and saftey code standards after winning zoning approval two years ago. "It's been very, very heartbreaking."
But Goldberg's opponents argued that her practice threatened the suburban tranquilty of their neighborhood. They didn't like the half dozen extra cars that rolled down the hilly drive to her house during office hours. They shuddered at the possibility that her zoning permit could open the door to more commercial offices on their residential street.
"She's taken this permit as a blank check to practice medicine" at any time, said Milton E. Key, a retired U.S. Army general who led the opposition. "People are coming into our neighborhood we'd prefer not be there." Key and his wife reside across the street from Goldberg in the neighborhood, located off Rte. 1 south of Alexandria. Residents say the average house on the block is valued at about $250,000.
"From the time I was a child, opening a small practice in my house was what I always wanted to do," said Goldberg, whose father, also a doctor, was seldom home when she was a child. "When you've worked so hard for something, this kind of thing is difficult to take."
She said she began the neighborhood practice at the suggestion of several nearby residents whose youngsters attended school with her own children. In two years, the clientele grew from a dozen neighborhood children to about 200 families throughout the area, Goldberg said.
Because Goldberg's zoning permit ran out before her Tuesday night hearing, she said she has already moved her practice into a traditional medical office complex, ending what had been -- for today at least -- a nontraditional medical practice.
It was the kind of practice that sent her out on neighborhood house calls. Once she saved the life an elderly stroke victim in an emergency call, neighbors said. Youngsters would walk or bike to her house for allergy shots, she said. Mothers would bring in their children for routine checkups, then lounge in the comfortable waiting room sipping coffee while their children played in the back yard with Goldberg's daughter and son.
"It's a different style of medicine she practices," said one neighborhood resident whose children are Goldberg patients. "It's not the turnstile medicine of most doctors' offices today."
Goldberg told the zoning board that her violations were limited to medical emergencies about once every two weeks. Goldberg said she met a patient at a nearby school to administer treatments to avoid violating her zoning permit restrictions. Besides the Gardner baby, who was born with a serious heart defect, off-hours visits included neighborhood youngsters Goldberg saw after hours so they wouldn't be forced to miss school, she said.
"It boils down to whether you are going to nit-pick about emergencies," said Eric Olsen, a neighbor. "It's obvious kids aren't like Swiss watches--they don't only get sick between 9 and 12."