Richard Johnson tried seven times in three years to speak to Rebecca Wiley’s administration about issues with his care at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Each time the retired Air Force sergeant called or visited the director’s top-floor suite at the downtown Augusta hospital, he could not get past the receptionist.
The latest complaint the disabled veteran wanted addressed was in 2011 after medical records confirmed that his primary physician’s request for a colonoscopy was delayed two months, the procedure was botched because of bad prep work and a follow-up appointment with a private doctor found six polyps in his colon.
“I can’t tell you if she is white, black, tall, short, thin or fat,” said Johnson, 66, who served from 1968-72 in Vietnam. “Mrs. Wiley and much of her staff were not available to veterans.”
Demands for accountability continue to grow in the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ investigation into three cancer patients’ deaths and 5,100 others whose endoscopies were delayed from 2011 to 2012 at the Augusta VA.
Wiley voluntarily retired in October 2013 and The Augusta Chronicle revealed this week that her chief of staff, Dr. Luke Stapleton, resigned from the position March 1, 2013, under the threat of discipline, but still remains on the hospital’s payroll as a hematologist. According to online records, Stapleton became chief of staff on June 5, 2010, and made $278,267 in 2012.
Stapleton was chief of staff when Johnson’s primary physician first requested that his patient receive a surveillance colonoscopy on July 28, 2011, because of a “family history of malignant neoplasm,” a medical term known more commonly as a tumor, according to a VA consultation sheet.
Johnson said his mother had colon cancer and, after surgery, lived five years.
Johnson was originally scheduled to have a colonoscopy on Aug. 17, but because of “poor prep,” the procedure was terminated and the veteran had to wait an additional month before the VA could perform the operation Sept. 15, 2011, documents state.
“ ‘I have a very troublesome colon,’ ” Johnson said he recalled telling the gastroenterologist. “ ‘I need two to three days to prep.’ ”
Medical records show that after he was partially sedated, the scope was advanced only to the “hepatic flexure,” a sharp bend between the ascending and the transverse colon.
At that point, Johnson said, he remembers hearing the doctor saying “blockage” and then attempting five times to advance the scope until Johnson complained he could feel the pressure and told the doctor to stop, that he was hurting.
“The colon was dilated and very difficult to advance further despite numerous attempts, multiple position changes and ample pressure,” the colonoscopy’s final report stated. “No obvious masses, but small lesions may have been missed.”
After the procedure, the VA recommended Johnson get a barium enema X-ray to show the rest of the colon and, if results were normal, to repeat the colonoscopy in three to five years.
Pete Scovill, spokesman for the Augusta VA, did not return phone messages Wednesday seeking comment.
“It’s now been three years, and I have not heard a word,” Johnson said.
Concerned by the VA’s lack of communication, Johnson said, he went to a private specialist in Evans 18 months after his colonoscopy at the VA. Records show an endoscopy and a colonoscopy found six polyps, one of which contained pre-cancerous cells.
The practice removed all the polyps. Johnson said that he no longer trusts the VA and that the House committee should go after Wiley’s administration, despite retirements and resignations.
“The VA clearly has a lot of explaining to do, especially in light of the fact that VA Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel stated during a Feb. 26 House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Hearing that ‘a number of people have either retired or resigned’ as a result of the three veteran deaths due to delays in care at the Augusta VA Medical Center,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “If you asked 100 people to interpret the word ‘resign,’ 99 would likely tell you that someone who ‘resigned’ from an organization no longer works there.
Since the VA has confirmed that Stapleton still works for the Augusta medical center and no other senior executive has faced administrative action for the deaths at Charlie Norwood, Miller said it’s now up to Petzel to set the record straight.
“Veterans in Augusta and members of Congress deserve to hear the full truth about what VA is doing to hold its employees accountable when patients fall through the cracks – not carefully crafted statements that split semantic hairs in an apparent attempt to obscure the facts.”
Johnson said the procedure also opened his eyes about his health care.
“Considering my family history and what the private gastroenterologist found, I’m going to get a colonoscopy every three years, except never again at the VA,” he said.