Malpractice complaints mounting at military hospital

May 25, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The ABC7 News I-Team has uncovered serious new complaints of medical malpractice at a Northern California military hospital -- a hospital with a history of high-profile problems.

We have heard several recent complaints from veterans, active duty service members and their families, about the horrible treatment they received at the hospital at Travis Air Force Base.

We begin with one heartbreaking story, an 8-year-old girl who watched her father die because a doctor misdiagnosed a deadly heart condition.

"Evelyn told me that she tried to do a little, get daddy to breathe, so she grabbed his nose, and she put her finger there to see if he was breathing," recalled Amy Bishop.

Matthew Bishop was behind the wheel of the family jeep last December getting ready to drive his two young daughters to school and daycare, when the tear in his aorta that had been getting ready to burst for the last four days finally gave way.

"Evelyn said that he made a funny snorey sound and his head went back, and she checked to see if he was OK and responsive, and he wasn't," Amy said.

His 8-year-old step-daughter Evelyn ran to a neighbor's house to get help, but medics could not revive him and he was pronounced dead in the emergency room at David Grant Medical Center where he had gone for help just four days before.

"It just hurts. I miss him," Amy says.

Amy says her husband, Matt, was in top physical condition. He volunteered and went to Iraq to help find roadside bombs and was honorably discharged after 11 years as a naval airman. But then, Saturday, Nov. 28, the 31-year-old suddenly starts feeling severe chest pain.

"He just got so flushed and he's just like, 'Babe, I'm getting that weird sensation again,' and he starts rubbing right here," Amy recalled.

Amy rushed him to the emergency room at the airbase hospital where he told the doctor he was suffering from intense pain that spread "from his back to his sternum and up his chest... into his neck and then to his head."

"It's the most common acute aortic emergency," says Doctor Michael Conte, Head of Vascular Aurgery at UCSF.

Conte did not want to comment directly on Bishop's case, but he says intense chest pain radiating from back to front is a classic symptom of acute aortic dissection, a tear in the artery that takes blood from the heart. It is a deadly condition that has a mortality rate of about 50 percent for every day it goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Conte says, "The best test that's most widely available in most places is a CAT scan."

But, the E.R. doctor did not do a CAT scan. She misdiagnosed Matt with acid reflux and sent him home.

Amy Bishop: It was textbook, the symptoms. It was almost verbatim.

Dan Noyes: And, the doctor thought it was gas?

Amy Bishop: Yeah, and the doctor thought it was gas.

The first appointment he could get to see a family practice doctor at David Grant was three days later on Dec. 1. That doctor misdiagnosed again, this time, with bronchitis. Matt insisted they run a CAT scan. The soonest he could get one was more than two weeks later. He died the next morning.

"Normal would be to do, you know, a chest CT, and they didn't do one and now my family is incomplete," Amy says.

Amy says hospital officials told her they have completed an investigation into her husband's death, but they refused to share the findings with her, citing laws that make military medical investigations confidential.

"We had the rest of our lives together and because they didn't care, it's cut short and now I have to explain to 9-month-old what happened to her daddy," Amy says.

That is not the only example of dangerously bad medical care that we've uncovered at David Grant.

"I feel like I lost my life as I knew," Army veteran Fred Zimmerman told the I-Team.

58-year-old Zimmerman went to David Grant last June for back surgery on a herniated disc. His wife Sue was surprised when the surgery took longer than the hour-and-a-half the doctor had told them to expect.

"The doctor came out after four hours and said, 'I don't know if I hurt him or helped him,'" Sue recalled.

That doctor later wrote in a memo that "as a complication of surgery" Zimmerman "has debilitating pain in his back and leg as well as numbness and weakness... He is unable to walk unaided" and that the "condition" is "likely permanent."

"It swells from my ankle down to my toes," Fred says.

Now, he takes four different kinds of pain medication.

"These are all pain pills that I take every day, three times a day," he told the I-Team.

He spends his days lying in a hospital bed in the living room.

"It gets harder every day," he says. "I can't do my fishing, my camping. I can't take my wife dancing. I can't play with my grandkids. It's just been a hard one year."

"The worst part of day is the waking up and realizing I've got to get in that chair again," Airman Colton Read says.

Airman Colton Read was admitted for gall bladder surgery last July. During the operation, surgeons accidentally cut his aorta. He lost more than half the blood in his body. He had to be transferred to UC Davis Medical Center where surgeons were forced to amputate both legs to save his life.

"They said, 'We've never seen anyone go for more than eight hours without blood flow to their legs,'" Read's wife Jessica recalled.

It is difficult to gauge how often medical mishaps like these happen at David Grant. We asked hospital administrators for a list of what are called "sentinel events" and "adverse outcomes" from the last year, information that's readily available on hospitals overseen by the state, but they refused. The Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation, which collects that data, would not share it with us either.

We requested an interview with Colonel Brian Hayes, the man in charge at David Grant, but he declined. Our cameras were there last month when the colonel, a Star Trek fan, accepted a workplace health and safety award for the hospital from OSHA.

"Captain Kirk, eat your heart out. I finally made it. I finally made it. Dreams do come true," he said during his acceptance.

"I've reviewed the cases and they're pretty compelling," says Democratic Representative Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton.

Congressman Jerry McNerney says he is so concerned about what we have uncovered, he has written a letter to the secretary of the Air force asking him to investigate and provide documentation about all cases of medical malpractice at David Grant.

"If there's a systemic, or a pattern of malpractice, then we need to get to the bottom of it and we need to make sure that they correct it," he says.

That is what Amy Bishop wants. She says it has been a struggle to cope since her husband's death. His birthday last week was an especially difficult time.

"My husband loved the military. He loved serving, loved everything about it. I love it... and I believe in what we're doing," she says. "I just don't believe in the crappy medical care that we get, and our dependents. We deserve better. Families can't go through this anymore. It's just, it's not right."

We are still waiting to get the results from a Freedom of Information Act request we submitted to the Air Force last month, for documents related to the problems at David Grant. We'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, May 26 at 6 p.m., we will report on the malpractice case from David Grant that is likely headed for the Supreme Court -- a man who went in for a routine appendectomy and died from an avoidable error.


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