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Topics: Veterans Affairs

A fatal level of trust in Veterans Affairs care

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Photo - Terry Weirick was an Army combat veteran who served nearly two years in Vietnam. He died in February after getting diagnosed with inoperable colorectal cancer. (Courtesy photo)
Terry Weirick was an Army combat veteran who served nearly two years in Vietnam. He died in February after getting diagnosed with inoperable colorectal cancer. (Courtesy photo)
Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,Indiana,Health Care,Accountability,Minusextra,Veterans,Eric Shinseki,Vietnam War

The second in a five-part series.

Terry Weirick had faith in the health care he was getting from the Department of Veterans Affairs almost until the day he died.

The Army combat veteran who served nearly two years in Vietnam started feeling weak and nauseous about two years ago. His doctors at the VA in Fort Wayne, Ind., told him he had the flu.

When he began having gut-wrenching pains, his doctors said it was constipation.

Faces of Delay

A five-part series by the Washington Examiner on some of the individual veterans who have suffered from poor care and long delays by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Part One: Delays, denials by VA deliver 'death sentence' to cancer victim

Today: A fatal level of trust in VA care

Part Three: Korean War veteran dies after VA hospital ignored his medical history, daughter says

Part Four: Treatment at a VA hospital nearly killed an agency whistleblower

Part Five: Missed leukemia diagnosis by VA leaves vet who put his trust in doctors living 'day to day'

Click here to see a summary of the series and find more resources

When he began bleeding from the rectum, he was told it was hemorrhoids.

Weirick believed them until it was too late.

The pain got so bad last October that Weirick checked himself into the emergency room of a private hospital in Goshen, Ind. Doctors there performed a colonoscopy, something that had not been done by the VA during his ordeal.

Weirick, 65, had inoperable colorectal cancer. He died in February.

“He should still be here,” said his widow, Rebecca. “They killed him. This was a good man, and this shouldn’t have happened.”

For most of his life, Weirick had no serious health issues, though he did have periodic nightmares about his service in Vietnam. He was a professional welder and he had health insurance, but he always chose to go to the VA for his medical care.

“He was a faithful believer in the VA,” Rebecca Weirick said.

In fall 2012, Weirick started having stomach pains. He felt weak and was losing weight, but could not afford to take time off work. Rather than go to a doctor in Goshen, Weirick went to the VA facility in nearby Fort Wayne.

Doctors there concluded he had the flu, and also found a minor problem with his prostate. They gave Weirick some pills and sent him home.

But he did not get better.

While the flu-like symptoms went away temporarily, they kept coming back as Weirick grew gradually weaker and lost more weight, Rebecca Weirick said.

His abdominal pain grew stronger, but his VA doctors repeatedly told him there was nothing seriously wrong with him, even when he started bleeding from the rectum.

Rebecca tried to get her husband to see a private doctor, but he always refused.

“He believed in the VA and he kept going to the VA,” she said. “I told him he needed to quit and go to our doctor, but that’s how faithful he was to the VA.”

By fall 2013, Weirick was so weak he could barely go to work. The pain in his abdomen had become excruciating, and the bleeding persisted.

They killed him. This was a good man, and this shouldn't have happened.
 

Finally, a medical provider at the Fort Wayne VA concluded he might be suffering from something more serious than repeated bouts of the flu and ordered a colonoscopy.

Before the procedure was performed by VA, Weirick woke his wife in the middle of the night last October and told her he was in so much pain that he needed to go to the emergency room.

He wanted to go to the VA hospital in Fort Wayne. Rebecca refused and took him to the local hospital in Goshen. Doctors there ordered a colonoscopy. It revealed advanced colorectal cancer.

By that time surgery was not an option. Weirick was put on chemotherapy. He died Feb. 15.

Long waits for colonoscopies are a longstanding problem at VA.

Even before the most recent scandal about falsified patient waiting lists, VA was under fire for waits of a year or longer that many veterans faced to get a colonoscopy or similar procedure.

Terry Weirick, who died at 65 of colorectal cancer, "was a faithful believer in the VA,” Rebecca Weirick said. (Courtesy photo)

An inspector general’s report issued in September 2013 linked the deaths of five patients at the VA hospital in Columbia, S.C., to unacceptable delays in colonoscopies. The report came out a month before Weirick found himself in the Goshen emergency room.

VA has admitted that at least 24 preventable patient deaths since August 2010 due to gastrointestinal cancers nationwide were tied to long delays in receiving colonoscopies. None of the patients was from the VA's Fort Wayne hospital.

Even after her husband’s death, Rebecca Weirick was not done dealing with the VA. She continued to get medical bills from the agency, which she sent back unpaid.

Terry Weirick had been receiving disability payments for hearing loss he sustained in Vietnam. Those payments ended when he died, as Rebecca expected.

What she did not expect was that in July the VA withdrew $174 from her bank account, claiming it was taken because the department had paid too much for her husband's disability benefit.

That was the final insult from the agency she blames for her husband’s death.

“If they would have caught it or done what they were supposed to do two years ago, he’d still be alive,” she said. “By the time he passed away, we finally got him out of believing in the VA.”

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