For almost three years, Alvin Wilson Jr. complained about sharp stomach pains to his doctor at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. Tests had shown elevated liver enzymes and abnormally high and low glucose levels.
Finally, on Feb. 29, the downtown branch of the Augusta hospital performed an endoscopy and diagnosed the disabled veteran with pancreatic cancer.
Six days later, the 83-year-old Army paratrooper – who received an honorable discharge in 1962 for his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam – died from complications related to his disease.
“I knew my father was dying just by looking at him,” said Dana Hartmann, of Martinez. “Not one X-ray was done, or one MRI taken. The VA just let him go.”
Wilson’s family links his death to the center’s embattled gastrointestinal program.
Hospital administrators admitted this week that it botched the clinic so badly that consultations were delayed unnecessarily for 5,100 veterans between 2011 and November 2012.
The medical center’s executive office has put the death toll at three cancer patients, but Wilson’s family and one former employee said the issue dates back eight years and might include more deaths, possibly connected to the administration of former Director Rebecca Wiley.
According to a 2012 report from the VA Inspector General’s Office, Wiley, whose tenure in Augusta lasted from 2007 to 2010, is responsible for nearly 90 percent of the medical center’s unresolved consults, along with the hospital’s loss of full accreditation three years ago.
The ongoing investigation found that mismanagement during some of Wiley’s time in Columbia, which began in November 2011, contributed to a backlog of nearly 4,000 gastrointestinal appointment delays, which in turn led to 19 instances of serious injury and six patient deaths.
Hospital spokesman Pete Scovill said Friday that Norwood officials have provided information on how to file a lawsuit to seven families in an effort to take responsibility for four serious injuries and three deaths.
Citing patient confidentiality, Scovill would not say whether Wilson’s death is one of the three, but he said the hospital has reached out to the family and is working with them the best it can, possibly to help it collect damages.
Hartmann said she has kept all her father’s medical records and her family is speaking with an attorney.
They said they’ve been told they have a strong case.
“I want them to pay or at least personally apologize for the pain they caused my families and others,” said Kelly Alsuhaim, Wilson’s granddaughter.
Hartmann believes her father could have been saved – or at least been in a lot less pain before his death – had the VA listened.
Starting in 2010, her father, a non-diabetic, reported elevated liver enzymes and glucose levels that were not high enough for his pancreas to make insulin. Hartmann said her father’s doctor scheduled many appointments at Charlie Norwood for exploratory testing, such as an endoscopy.
Each time the sessions were pushed back and Wilson was sent home, his pain written off as a product of old age, ulcers, minor gastric problems, lung infection. At one point, the hospital told him it was “all in his head,” a byproduct of depression after the death of his wife.
“They told him to modify his diet, but what really was happening is his bile ducts were being blocked and his pancreas was shutting down,” Hartmann said.
Catherine McAdams, a 28-year operating room nurse at Charlie Norwood who left the hospital’s infection control unit in October 2008, said that under Wiley, it was not uncommon for administrators to turn a blind eye to gastrointestinal patients.
She believes there might be more deaths related to colonoscopies and incompetent care.
In June 2005, McAdams went full time as a staff nurse at the medical center’s spinal cord injury unit. During her first week, while shadowing a wound care specialist, she tended to a veteran who had a procedureto reroute his bowels for better bladder control. McAdams and the specialist discovered that two-thirds of the patient’s colon had died, and his vital signs were fading.
“They didn’t do anything,” McAdams said. The veteran spent three weeks in intensive care and eventually died. “They let him sit for seven days on the spinal cord injury unit, writhing in pain.”
She said she knows of at least four deaths linked to surgeons using leaky feeding tubes or improperly sterilized endoscopes to operate on Army veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, some of whom ranked as high as captain.
McAdams said she reported the incidents in 2008 to the VA. She said she wished she had done so sooner.
“You don’t understand the culture of the VA under Wiley,” she said. “It was intimidating and retaliatory.”
McAdams said she plans to contact the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to help with Congress’ investigation into gastrointestinal mismanagement in Augusta and Columbia.
In September, the committee requested copies of all current accounts of appointment backlogs and patient injuries. It also asked for any records reflecting performance reviews, pay bonuses and disciplinary actions issued since 2002 to those who oversee patient safety in Augusta.
Charlie Norwood officials said they have complied with the request and have added resources and made personnel changes to the hospital’s gastrointestinal program to reduce the backlog to 540 unresolved screenings.
Scovill said the hospital takes all complaints seriously and invites all veterans to call its patient advocate director, Donna Ingram, at (706) 733-0188 if they feel they are owed compensation or in need of further assistance.
“They’re better off working within our system and giving us a second try to make it right,” Scovill said. “After that, they can file an appeal and take it to court.”
Hartmann said the VA is out of chances, as far as she is concerned.
“I have been trying to get somebody to listen to me for three years,” she said. “But nobody would.”