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Widow says VA denied responsibility for Legionnaires' deaths

PITTSBURGH — The wife of the most recent victim of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospitals said Thursday that two weeks after her husband died in November, and the day before her husband was to be buried, the head of the VA's infection control section called her and appeared to want to deflect blame for the disease.

Greta Nicklas, 80, said Robert Muder called and said that her husband, Army veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, had been staying in the wrong section of the building for him to have contracted the deadly disease there.

"He did ask me what floor he was on and I said he was on the fifth floor when he got sick," Mrs. Nicklas said. "He said there was no problem on the fifth floor. And I said, 'How can there not be a problem on the fifth floor? Aren't all the pipes the same in the building?'

"I would say he was on the defensive," Mrs. Nicklas said.

A report on the Legionnaires outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released to Congress at a hearing on Tuesday concluded that in all, 21 people "probably" or "definitely" contracted the disease from either the University Drive hospital in Oakland or the VA's H.J. Heinz facility near Aspinwall, and five of those people died.

But the cases from the hospital "were not clustered at any one location within the hospital," the report concluded.

In addition, Mrs. Nicklas said that during the phone call, Dr. Muder tried to emphasize that it wasn't the Legionella bacterium that killed Mr. Nicklas, it was heart failure — even though the attending physician listed "Legionella Pneumonia" as a secondary cause on his death certificate.

Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill said because of the legal claim filed by the Nicklas family in December against the federal government, he was unable to answer questions about the phone call.

That call, first revealed in the civil wrongful death form the family filed with the federal government in December, and obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a Freedom of Information Act request this week, is strange because it came a week after the VA itself had confirmed to the Allegheny County Department of Health that William Nicklas had died after contracting the disease at the hospital.

Mrs. Nicklas' attorney, Harry Cohen, said he considered Dr. Muder's call an act of "intimidation," and, because of that, he filed two separate civil claims with the government: One for wrongful death, and the other for intentional infliction of emotional harm.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, was bothered by the story from Mrs. Nicklas.

"Much like the accusations of falsified water test results we uncovered from Tuesday's hearing, this is another startling piece of information that we're following up as part of our ongoing investigation to get the answers our region's veterans and families deserve," he said.

Mr. Murphy added that he would bring the episode to the attention of U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations that held the hearing on the outbreak Tuesday.

The claim from the VA that the disease could not have originated inside the VA facilities is similar to what happened to the family of the first veteran to die during the outbreak, John Ciarolla, 83, after the Navy veteran died on July 18, 2011.

As previously reported, a VA official told two of Mr. Ciarolla's daughters, Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, and Sharon Heinnickel of Greensburg, that their father probably contracted the disease during two, half-day outings to their homes in the weeks prior to him being diagnosed with the disease and the VA needed to test their homes' water first. That was even though he spent all of the rest of his time either at the Heinz facility or University Drive before he got sick.

Ms. Ciarolla was troubled to hear that 15 months after her father died, Mrs. Nicklas was also being told that her husband must have contracted Legionnaires outside the Pittsburgh VA system.

"That's what they said to me. Amazing," Ms. Ciarolla said. "Maybe that's just their protocol. They're no different than the insurance companies: Just deny, deny, deny. You have to just keep on coming at them."

William Nicklas' son, Bob, said knowing the stories from other veterans makes him even angrier, because Dr. Muder at one point in December told his mother: "The true story will come out" about how her husband died.

"Well," Bob Nicklas said, "it's two months later and the whole story still hasn't come out."

shamill@post-gazette.com

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