Karen Burough said her husband’s body finally gave out after eight years of postponed appointments, delayed treatment plans and misdiagnoses at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Henry Burough’s death certificate states the former Army staff sergeant died May 9 around 5:35 a.m. at age 62 of cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes and high blood pressure.
His wife of 12 years, along with the couple’s three children, say the lack of care Burough received at the Augusta VA contributed to the death of the man who trained military dogs to detect land mines for Vietnam War soldiers from 1969 to 1972.
Karen Burough has CT scans from private hospitals that show what the VA could not find: a gallbladder filled with stones; a liver that failed because of an untreated case of hepatitis C; and stomach, kidneys and spleen enlarged to the point that her husband had difficulty eating solid foods and needed a catheter.
“It has been hard for me – very hard,” Karen Burough said at her south Augusta home last week. “I have so much hate for that VA hospital. They totally ignored my husband and now he’s gone.”
Because his death was not caused by cancer, Burough is not considered to be one of the three fatalities that directly resulted from the Augusta VA’s botched gastrointestinal program between 2011 and November 2012. However, his death raises broader questions about how far back the hospital’s problems date.
Karen Burough is one of three people to share information with The Augusta Chronicle about inadequate care and improperly sterilized equipment that suggests the issue might date back at least eight years and is part of a culture of delayed consultations.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is investigating the administration of former director Rebecca Wiley for the missteps, but a timeline provided by the Augusta VA shows Wiley, now retired and living in North Augusta, did not become head of the hospital until 2007.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., will lead a congressional oversight visit to the Augusta VA on Monday. Officials will try to determine what caused the patient deaths, what actions have been taken to correct the problems and who is responsible for letting patients slip through the cracks.
Burough said she wants answers about why her husband didn’t get the care he deserved.
“We still do not know how Henry got hepatitis C,” she said. “My husband would not have died so quickly if they had started treatment sooner and monitored his liver more effectively.”
Burough’s wife said his troubles began in 2005, when he was admitted to the Augusta VA for an inflamed prostate, 14 years after the hospital diagnosed him as a borderline diabetic, with his blood-sugar levels in the 250 range. The American Diabetes Association has reported that blood glucose levels greater than 250 can lead to coma or death.
During this stay at the hospital, his primary care physician diagnosed him with hepatitis C and filed a work order for a gastroenterologist to schedule an appointment with the family to go over his condition and start a treatment plan. But Karen Burough said her husband didn’t get that appointment until seven years later, despite progress notes filed by the VA on April 6, 2011, stating that Burough had hepatitis C and a “fatty-cirrhotic liver.”
In March 2010, Karen Burough took Henry to the VA when he became nauseated and complained of sharp stomach pains every time he ate. Hospital staff told them it was a minor virus and sent him home.
When his condition worsened, Burough said, she took him to Trinity Hospital, where a CT scan revealed gallstones. The couple returned to the VA with the test results, and he was admitted for a week. Burough said her husband did not see a doctor, only interns.
“They did not do anything,” she said. “I finally ended up pulling him out and taking him to MCG to have his gallbladder removed. When the staff took it out, it was extremely enlarged with multiple stones inside.”
A visit to Doctors Hospital in early 2012 showed he had cirrhosis of the liver. At that point, Karen Burough said, she presented the test results to the VA and finally got an appointment with a gastroenterologist. The specialist at the VA prescribed antiviral medications and a weekly shot; however, the drugs did not agree with his system, his wife said.
On July 1, 2012, an EMS report states that Karen Burough awoke at 3 a.m. to find her husband on the floor in their bedroom, incoherent and not breathing. She and her children called 911, and an ambulance took him to the VA. Test results show the medications prescribed to him had formed a ball on top of his liver, causing the organ to rupture. He was admitted into intensive care and later fell into a coma.
Burough said the VA attempted to perform a CT scan to determine the cause of his coma, but before they could, her husband went into cardiac arrest and was jolted back to life, despite his living will containing a do-not-resuscitate clause.
“When he finally awoke from his coma, it seemed like his mind was fading in and out of consciousness,” Burough said.
She said she and her children would often find him lying in soaking wet clothes and old diapers at the Augusta VA’s downtown branch.
Burough said the family called the hospital’s patient advocate, who assigned her husband to rehabilitation at the medical center’s uptown campus.
A discharge summary shows he was released in September 2012 and states that he was to have “out-patient followup in three to four weeks.” The summary said the VA would schedule the appointment, but Burough said it didn’t.
A month later, Burough said, her husband began passing extremely dark urine. She said the family tried to schedule an appointment at the VA but was told he could not be seen until January. A visit to Doctors Hospital found he had a urinary tract infection.
“When the doctor came in, he told the family – and Henry, too – that it was only a matter of time now and all we could do is keep Henry as comfortable as possible,” Burough said.
On May 1, Henry Burough was put in hospice care after he reported spells of dizziness and difficulty breathing. On May 4, he celebrated his grandson’s second birthday. Karen Burough recalled walking in on him that night as he told his grandson that “papa’s going to be leaving in a few days and will not be back. Always remember papa loves you.”
Five days later, Burough died.
Karen Burough said she made the VA aware of her husband’s inadequate care during a conference in 2010 with administration, but officials told her his health situation wasn’t government related and not a high priority.
Hospital spokesman Pete Scovill said he could not discuss the details of Burough’s case because of confidentiality laws; however, he said the hospital takes all complaints seriously and invites all veterans to call his office at (706) 733-0188 if they feel they are owed compensation or their case is in need of further review.
Burough said after years of being ignored, she has lost faith in the hospital’s word.
“My husband gave his all for this country,” she said. “For him to totally be ignored, is just not right. He deserved better.”