MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
In Southern Illinois, there are allegations of poor patient care and a possible cover-up at a veteran's hospital. The Veterans Administration is already looking into a sudden spike in post-surgical patient deaths at the V.A. Medical Center in Marion.
Now, the U.S. attorney is being asked to investigate. At least 10 of these deaths may be linked to one doctor - a doctor who operated on patients even though he was facing malpractice charges in another state.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: Early in the morning of August 9th, Katrina Shank and her husband, Bob, made the two-hour drive from their apartment in Murray, Kentucky, to the V.A. hospital in Marion, Illinois. Katrina says her husband was eager to finally get some relief from painful gallstones as he was scheduled for a 9 a.m. laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, a fairly routine and minimally invasive procedure.
KATRINA SHANK: Before he went in, you know, before they wheeled him off, he tell me that he love me and tell me to pay real close attention to the doctor, that I'd understand what he was saying, and that's the last time I saw him alive anywhere - awake, anyway.
SCHAPER: Sitting in her kitchen table with pictures of Bob in front of her, Katrina Shank remembers that around noon, the surgeon, Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez, told her that her husband would not wake up, that he might have had a stroke or a heart attack. Nurses continued blood transfusions, but his blood pressure kept dropping. Finally, Dr. Mendez cut open the 50-year-old Air Force veteran to try to find out where the blood was going, but it was too late.
SHANK: They closed him back up, brought him back in the ICU, kept giving him blood through the night. And at 9:47 the next morning, he was gone, just that quick.
SCHAPER: Katrina Shank says the autopsy revealed her husband did not have a heart attack or a strok, as Dr. Mendez suggested.
SHANK: I don't know if he just didn't know or if he was trying to cover his own tracks or what, but he pretty much let my husband bleed to death.
SCHAPER: And a week later while back at the Marion V.A. hospital to sign some papers, Katrina Shank says the hospital staffer pulled her aside and whispered that she should hire an attorney because her husband wasn't the only recent patient to die under Dr. Mendez's care.
SHANK: Within three weeks, he had three patients, you know, this is what I was told.
SCHAPER: In fact, the Veterans Administration is investigating the deaths of at least 10 of Dr. Mendez's patients in the 20 months he worked there. Dr. Mendez resigned three days after Bob Shank died in August. Numerous attempts to reach him and his attorneys for the story were unsuccessful. Before he was hired by the Marion V.A. in January of 2006, the state medical board in Massachusetts was investigating him for at least eight complaints, including two deaths. But V.A. officials say they couldn't have known about that because Massachusetts is one of several states that doesn't report such investigations until they are complete.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin says there still were warning signs.
RICHARD DURBIN: The fact is this doctor had two malpractice claims filed against him in Massachusetts and one disciplinary action by a hospital, regardless, he was still hired by the Veterans Administration.
SCHAPER: After he started working in Marion, Dr. Mendez voluntarily surrendered his medical license in Massachusetts before it could be revoked, essentially ending disciplinary proceedings there, something, Durbin says, should have been another red flag. And he says his office has been hearing from whistleblowers from within the Marion V.A. hospital who claim they had been warning administrators about Dr. Mendez.
DURBIN: The allegations include not just incompetent administration, but the destruction of medical records and the changing of patient records. That, I believe, is criminal.
SHAPER: Durbin is asking the U.S. attorney's office in southern Illinois to investigate. A spokeswoman for the Marion V.A. Medical Center could not comment on those allegations.
Standing outside the historic southern Illinois hospital, Community Affairs officer, Becca Shinnamon, does confirm, though, that there are several investigations underway, including one by the V.A.'s inspector general.
BECCA SHINNAMON: They're investigating deaths. They're investigating processes within our facility. They're looking at maybe personnel, training. They're also looking at building, everything.
SCHAPER: Shinnamon says that since late August, all in-patient surgeries have been suspended, and that the hospital's director, the chief of staff, the chief of surgery and another top official have all been placed on administrative leave. The Senate's Committee on Veterans Affairs will hold a hearing in Washington tomorrow on the Marion V.A. hospital's recent problems and on broader concerns about the quality control practices within the entire V.A.
Two weeks ago, a second doctor at Marion was suspended after it was discovered that he, too, had faced disciplinary action in another state. And some fear there could be other doctors with troubled pasts working in V.A. hospitals across the country.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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