Veteran Dies After VA Refuses Treatment for Days

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As the Walter Reed scandal rocks Washington, what are the conditions at VA hospitals outside the Beltway? We look at the story of a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran named Willie Dougherty. He died in October after suffering two pelvic fractures. His family says he died because he was refused treatment by the VA. We speak with his widow, Jean Stentz, American Legion commander Harold Davis and Shay Everitt, the journalism student who first started investigating the story. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a measure yesterday that bars the closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The center was scheduled to be closed in 2011. Last month, The Washington Post published a series of articles exposing the deplorable conditions at the hospital. Since then, Army Secretary Francis Harvey, Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley and Walter Reed’s Commanding General Major George Weightman have all been ousted.

AMY GOODMAN: Since Walter Reed is considered the military’s premier medical facility, many are now questioning the condition of military and veteran facilities around the country.

Today, we’ll look at the story of a 58-year-old Vietnam vet named Willie Dougherty. He died in October after suffering a pelvic fracture. His family says he died because he was refused treatment originally. It happened in Texas — yes, President Bush’s home state. Willie Dougherty’s widow, Jean Stentz, joins us in Houston. We’re also joined by Harold Davis, the commander of the American Legion Post 629 in Camilla, Texas, and Shay Everitt. She’s a journalism student at Houston State University, who first started investigating this story.

We’re going to begin with Jean Stentz. Again, her husband is Willie Dougherty. Jean, tell us what happened Labor Day weekend.

JEAN STENTZ: We live in a small little subdivision. And he went to get the mail in the golf cart. Once he did that —

AMY GOODMAN: Why a golf cart?

JEAN STENTZ: Well, it’s six-tenths of a mile to get to the mailbox, and he was paralyzed on one side.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s a disabled vet from Vietnam?

JEAN STENTZ: One hundred percent disabled vet.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

JEAN STENTZ: OK. And he went to the mailbox. And on the way back, his foot got stuck on the gas pedal — his right foot, which was paralyzed — and the only way to get it off was to take his left hand and lift his foot. When he did this, of course, the golf cart went out of control. So it rolled over and on top of him. We had EMS come. He had a pelvic fracture. He had three of them. And we took him to the emergency room there in Livingston. Livingston then transferred him to Corpus Christi CHRISTUS Hospital, and they sent him home.

AMY GOODMAN: Are these the VA hospitals?

JEAN STENTZ: No. They are not.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t he just go into the VA? He is a veteran.

JEAN STENTZ: Because the VA hospital was full, and they wanted him to go to another one. And so, Beaumont’s two hours away from us, and Houston’s an hour away, but they sent him to Beaumont. And then, when they released him, I took him down by ambulance to the VA hospital emergency room, who refused him at that time, because they said he wasn’t sick enough. He had an infection. He was perspiring profusely. I mean, the pillows were wet. He had fever. He had trouble breathing. But he wasn’t sick enough. So we came home.

We called on the phone — in fact, my daughter and I had two phones going, the cell and the home phone — trying to find help for him. Finally, the VA doctor in Lufkin decided that he should be put in a nursing home. He was in a nursing home in Huntsville less than two days and was very sick, was transferred to the Huntsville emergency room, who transferred him finally to the VA hospital in Houston, where he was in ICU, very ill, and transferred to their hospice room and died.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us how long after he had been rejected by the emergency room, the period of time that transpired between that time and his passing?

JEAN STENTZ: Between the time in the emergency room and his getting back to the VA was about five days.


AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Shay Everitt. Shay brought us this story, a journalism student in Huntsville, Texas. Shay, how did you learn about the story of Willie Dougherty? And can you talk about your investigation of this, as you talked to Jean — and then we’ll talk to the commander of the American Legion post — the whole series of weeks that transpired before Willie died?

SHAY EVERITT: Well, Jean and Harold both tried to get a hold of a few different newspapers, local newspapers and radio stations and television stations. And they did not have any luck having anyone pick up the story. So I heard about it. I came over, interviewed them and spoke with them about Willie’s death. And I found that it was a very horrific story and that someone needs to hear about it. So I ended up calling the VA regional office, and they did not respond. There was no one that would speak to the press. They wouldn’t answer phone calls. It was just no luck in getting a hold of them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Harold Davis, you’re the commander of the American Legion Post 629 there. Could you talk to us about this whole issue of the veterans’ hospitals being filled, as was mentioned previously? What is the situation right now with medical care in your region for returned veterans?

HAROLD DAVIS: Well, it ain’t good at all. You’ve got a bunch of guys coming back from the VA right now — I mean, coming back from Iraq. And they’re promised two years of medical, or two to five years of medical. And when they come back, they ain’t gonna have nothing to look forward to. I can’t understand why they only get two years or five years of medical, when you got World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, all of them getting full benefits all the rest of us get. It ain’t right that they got to come back over here after spending their time over there, and this is what they got to expect for healthcare? Something’s wrong. Something needs to be done. And I think all the veterans going to get together and get this thing done and quit talking about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You were at Willie Dougherty’s funeral, Commander?

HAROLD DAVIS: Yes, ma’am. I sure was.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts then and what were the vets who came to the funeral? I mean, Willie Dougherty is known, because he speaks out. He’s gone to the capital, Austin, speaks out about veterans. Talk about Willie and talk about your resolution.

HAROLD DAVIS: Well, it was a sad situation, because a man shouldn’t have to die like that. I mean, nobody should. But the way he was treated by the VA was wrong. It shouldn’t have been done. But now they’re trying to cover it up. It’s like anything else, they try to cover it up.

Now, my opinion is something needs to be done, a new administration or something put in that VA, where this don’t happen to nobody else. And these guys coming back, we need to give them the full benefits they deserve, because if they come over here, they’re not going to believe in the — when they come back, they done lost their interest in the government if they don’t get treated right with their medical. All right? These are the people that are the future of your post, your VFWs, your American Legions, your DAV. We can’t do nothing for them if the VA don’t do anything. That’s what we’re here for, to help them try to get their benefits and take care of our veterans when they come back.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you see these stories at Walter Reed and the exposes now of conditions at the military’s premier hospital, what’s your reaction?

HAROLD DAVIS: Well, I understand where they’re coming from with Walter Reed, but I’m more concerned of our VA care here in the state of Texas, the way things are going on here. Now, it ain’t right — like I said, it ain’t right for any veteran, no matter where they’re at, to be treated like this. I’ve heard of just one veteran that was in a wheelchair for two days there at Walter Reed before he even got waited on. No food, no nothing for two days. Now, is that right? Somebody’s bound to see. It’s just not — that ain’t right.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, did you say that Iraq War vets just get two years of healthcare?

HAROLD DAVIS: Yes, ma’am. They’re supposed to be entitled to, I think, two years or five years, is all they’re entitled to.

AMY GOODMAN: You were talking about a situation with our producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous: a veteran who had cancer and had his teeth pulled?

HAROLD DAVIS: Yes, ma’am. It’s a veteran we have. And he had a cancer, and he was having radiation done. And in order for him to have the radiation, he had to have his teeth pulled, in order for him to have that type of radiation. All right, now, the veterans pulled his teeth, but they would not replace his teeth, because it’s not service-related. And the man’s already disfigured by them pulling his teeth. Now, this is not right. Is it up to the post or getting donations to buy this man teeth, when the VA can simply make him a set of teeth and give them to him? It don’t make sense.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Jean Stentz, the passing of your husband, what are you seeking now to be able to do after that? What do you want from the VA or the government at this point?

JEAN STENTZ: I would like to see that nobody has to go through his experience. The last month of his life was terrible. He was not given adequate treatment. There is no reason why a 58-year-old man with a pelvic fracture should die of it. And that’s due to the kind of treatment that he was given. I’d like to see this not happen to other people.

I mean, one night he was dumped on my driveway at 9:30 at night, after arriving from Beaumont, being strapped in a wheelchair in the back of a van, and they let him out on the driveway. And it was up to us to get him in the house. He had pain medication. He had nothing. And it was up to us to figure out what to do as a family for him. And Willie was 6’4” and weighed about 200 pounds. I’m 5’2” and weigh about 110. So there’s not too much I could do with Willie.

I would like to see them look into — in my own case, I’m not entitled to his benefits, because he wasn’t disabled 100 percent for 10 years. So they say I don’t get the benefits. The one officer told me that if we would get him an internal autopsy, that I could have benefits. However, since it was an accidental death, the VA hospital doesn’t do the autopsy. The medical examiner’s office in Houston does the autopsy. They don’t do an internal one for this. I spoke to them about it. But they did an external one. I spoke to the VA to see if they could then get the body, but they didn’t. And it arrived at the funeral home, and I went ahead with the funeral.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean, I wanted to ask, was he put in a storage room at one point, Willie Dougherty, when he was being treated?

JEAN STENTZ: Yeah. Well, yes. At the Huntsville Green Acres Nursing Home, it wasn’t a storage room. It was supposed to be a two-patient room. However, they had boxes stored in that room. And I asked for that to be removed the first night that we took him in there. It took them over an hour to find water for him. And it was not correct, not their normal thing, but something they came up with. The next day I went in, there was still no water thing on where he could obtain it, and the boxes were still in the room. I started down the hall to tell the nurse, and then I got really mad. I went back, and I moved those boxes out in the middle of the hall. I figured they would do something about it then.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they yell at you?


AMY GOODMAN: They let you do it. And when he was put into ICU finally at the VA hospital, after they said he wasn’t sick enough, did they say he was the sickest they ever had in the ICU?

JEAN STENTZ: They said he was the sickest in the hospital at that time, because I was very confused when the doctor told me what was wrong with him —

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ve just lost the satellite to Houston. But we will certainly continue to follow this story.

I also want to talk about the hospitals that we contacted to ask for their comment. We called the VA Medical Center in Houston to invite them on the program. They declined our invitation. They said they couldn’t discuss any details regarding the case, because of privacy and HIPPA laws. The only thing they could verify was that Willie Dougherty was a veteran and that he received treatment. We also called the Livingston Memorial Medical Center, the first hospital Willie was brought to after the injury on September 29th. They said they’re a Level 4 trauma center, and due to the extent of his injuries they had to transfer him to a Level 2 trauma center. They also said that when they transferred him, his vital signs were good and he was in stable condition. We also called the other medical facilities he was transferred to, including CHRISTUS Hospital and the Green Acres Nursing Home. They didn’t return our calls.

I want to thank all our guests for being with us. I want to thank Shay Everitt, the journalism student at Sam Houston State in Huntsville. She first investigated this story. Her story has yet to be published. Jean Stentz, her husband, Willie Dougherty, died in October 2006, won awards, Purple Heart and other medals, came back to Texas, has been a longtime veteran activist, speaking out in Austin in the Capitol. Harold Davis is commander of the American Legion Post 629 in Camilla, Texas. We thank you all for being with us, and we’ll update people on this story.

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