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VA Hospital Failed Joseph
5/22/2013 3:46:11 PM

By Beverly Gadson-Birch 

Memorial Day is set aside to honor veterans who died in service. However, many Americans observe the day by visiting and placing flowers on the graves of their love ones regardless of whether they died in service or after being discharged. It’s a good time to reflect on all veterans who proudly served this country. It is also a good time to tell Joseph’s story.

On Monday, a few family and friends gathered to pay final tribute to Joseph Williams, a veteran of the United States Air Force. Joseph’s funeral was held at Grover Memorial Baptist Church near Yemassee, SC in a small rural church founded by his father. The presence of the Air Force Honor Guard was evidence that Joseph had served his country and was honorably discharged. As I sat and listened to the playing of TAPS and the lyrics most often remembered, “All is well, safely rest, God is nigh”, I knew I had to tell Joe’s story because all was not well, at least not at Ralph H. Johnson Veteran’s Hospital.

After completing his tour of duty in the military, Joseph worked as a Broadcast Engineer for a local television station until he began experiencing some mental health issues. Joseph was a quiet and gentle man. He lived most of his later life alone and in darkness. In 1987 Joseph was diagnosed as Paranoid Schizophrenia. Even prior to that time, Joseph was experiencing psychotic symptoms. He was not a threat to anyone or himself. He was hospitalized on numerous occasions at the Ralph H. Johnson Veteran’s Hospital. Over the years, I have heard many horror stories about veterans’ treatment at the VA hospital. Oftentimes, stories are just that unless they can be substantiated. I have gone to great length to substantiate Joe’s story because his story is not his alone. Veterans that have served their country well and are in need of medical care often find themselves victims of a medical system that is flawed.

Joseph fell twice in as many days. After his second fall on the street trying to get to the VA Hospital, a witness who saw him fall called EMS and he was transported to the VA Hospital. Several days later, I received a call from Joseph asking me to come to the Veteran’s Hospital because they were threatening to call the police and have him forcibly removed and taken to a homeless shelter if he did not leave. During the telephone conversation he paused several times as he labored trying to tell me what happened. Some points of his conversation were barely distinguishable. 

Upon arriving at the VA Hospital, two nurses were in Joseph’s room and asked did I come to take him home. My response was no. My visual of Joseph that day was he was not ready to be released and if he was released he could not go home alone. He could not climb the 12 steps to his apartment; and even if he could, he was in no condition to prepare meals or administer the numerous medications he was required to take on a daily basis without assistance. I am listed as Joseph’s next of kin on his hospital records.

Joseph’s physician attributed his shortness of breath to pneumonia but said it was clearing up and she could not see any reasons why he should remain in the hospital. Since I refused to take Joseph home a Social Worker was summoned. She said Joseph needed to leave. I asked her if he could go to rehab until he was better and she said no. She said Joseph’s options are: (1) he returns to where he was living; (2) find a new apartment on his own; (3) go to an assisted living facility or (4) homeless shelter. I explained to the Social Worker that the homeless shelter was not an option for Joseph. Since I refused to take Joseph out of the hospital and because it was apparent they would deliver on their threat to have him removed, I found a residential care placement for him. After giving them the name of the residential care, they still insisted that I drive Joseph to the facility more than 35 miles away. The Social Worker did not try to assist me in getting transportation until I pressed for transportation. She said there were no provisions for transportation for Joseph because he did not fall within the guidelines.

After approximately 10 days in a residential facility Joseph was returned to the hospital for swelling in his legs and difficulty breathing. This time, Joseph was diagnosed with gall bladder problems. Since Joseph had other medical conditions, the doctor decided to use the less invasive procedure to remove the stones and drain the infection. He was given some type of drug and had an allergic reaction. His tongue became so swollen he could not close his mouth. This further complicated his ability to breathe. Joseph required oxygen most of the time that he was in the hospital. At least three persons were told he would go back to the residential care facility with oxygen. That did not happen. Joseph was released without the hospital notifying his next of kin and no one signed him out.

The VA called the residential home director on Tuesday to pick him up and less than 12 hours later Joseph was dead.

My sister accompanied me to the Veteran’s Hospital on Wednesday seeking answers to Joseph’s sudden death. The attending physician could not tell us what he thought happened to Joseph. He said he was just as surprised as we were because he was not looking for Joseph to die. He rattled off a series of health issues, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, pulmonary edema, kidney failure, etc. When questioned why Joseph was released without oxygen, he replied that “it was his call.” He said I don’t know who told you Joseph would be going home with oxygen because they cannot make that decision. An independent autopsy was requested. The attending physician approved the request but did not provide the necessary paperwork for my signature. 

It has been a nightmare experience. After several trips to the hospital to facilitate the autopsy and having been given the run around, we decided to picket the hospital. The authorization form was finally signed by a physician and forwarded to MUSC. As of this writing, we are awaiting the results of the autopsy.

The VA Hospital failed to treat Joseph and his family with respect. A mental disorder does not always mean crazy. Every veteran should be treated with the upmost respect. Joseph’s story sheds light on a flawed system. The VA hospital lacks protocol and needs to be overhauled. Having had time to think about how Joseph was treated over the years, how many more Josephs are out there that do not have an advocate to speak on their behalf? How many veterans are being rushed through the system without the proper assistance or diagnosis? How many veterans can benefit from mental health services and are not receiving them? How many veterans are denied or not receiving services because social workers refuse to properly advise them on available services or help them complete the paperwork?

My family is seeking Justice for Joseph. I owe my life to veterans such as Joseph. I live because of our brave men and women in the military who risk their lives every day for my freedom. The least that I can do in return is fight for theirs. 


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