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Delayed care has one Augusta VA patient fearing for his life

The Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.

Michael Newton had an appointment at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center last week to have as many as 12 small tumors removed from his bladder. But instead, the cancer patient canceled and will now travel across four states and more than 1,000 miles to get the treatment he said he should have received six months ago at the Augusta hospital.

“I have lost all faith in that hospital,” Newton, 62, said last week at his Grovetown home.

After reviewing the Air Force veteran’s medical records, the National Institute of Health offered to resect the dozen tumors that had formed in Newton’s bladder since June 13, when surgeons at the Augusta VA promised him all such cells had been removed from his system in their “entirety,” according to medical records.

Also offered by the Maryland research institute, and accepted by Newton, was mitomycin, a type of chemotherapy for upper gastrointestinal cancers that Newton said he was denied this summer at the Augusta VA despite lab results showing the tumor originally removed from his bladder was “high-grade.”

“When they saw that the tumor was high-grade, they should have brought me back and given me mitomycin, but they didn’t,” said Newton, who is a 100 percent disabled veteran. “Instead, they told me the tumor was benign and that no chemotherapy was needed. They were basically putting me on a schedule to die.”

Hundreds, possibly even thousands of veterans, including Newton, are becoming more and more fearful that the Augusta VA is shaving years off their lives.

Three cancer patients died and four veterans were injured between 2011 and November 2012 after hospital administration failed to schedule 5,100 primary-care referrals made to the medical center’s gastrointestinal program.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is investigating the management error in hopes of holding accountable those who are responsible.

The committee has targeted the administration of former Director Rebecca Wiley, which managed the hospital from 2007 to 2011 – the year Newton’s problems began to escalate.

Newton joined the Air Force in 1972. Almost a year after he enlisted, a biopsy performed by Navy Medical staff found he had rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which damaged skeletal muscle tissue breaks down and is released into the bloodstream, possibly resulting in kidney failure.

“Because of the uncertainty of his illness, Mr. Newton’s life has been disrupted and he needs some measure of emotional support,” Dr. Stanley Bodner wrote in a letter to Newton’s commanders on Jan. 23, 1973.

Newton left the Air Force in 1979, but his health condition persisted for more than 30 years, peaking in June 2011, when he suffered a major episode.

“I thought I had the flu, but then my vision became black, my urine turned the color of Coca-Cola and I started passing lesions,” he said.

Newton said he stayed in the Augusta VA in kidney failure for two days until a nurse intervened and started to give him dialysis. A week later, the hospital released Newton for three months of outpatient dialysis and said a notice would be sent in the mail for a follow-up appointment in two weeks, discharge summaries show.

But Newton said he never got the notice and that the hospital stopped dialysis by the end of 2011. His wife, Romaine, said her husband’s urine flow returned, but that his kidney output was below normal and as a result, he put on 30 pounds.

“He kept saying ‘I’m not feeling well,’ and we visited several different programs in the VA’s nephrology and neurology programs until October 2012, when he began experiencing sharp pains in his right side and started seeing blood in his urine,” she said.

“I bent over in my room and felt like someone had stabbed me,” Michael Newton said, describing the pain.

A CT scan performed at the VA in January 2013 revealed his bladder was distended, but the Newtons said the VA did nothing about it.

“From then until April 2013, there has been a tremendous delay,” Romaine Newton said.

In May, the VA scheduled a cystoscopy and found a tumor in his bladder.

“The bladder was surveyed in systemic fashion and a papillary tumor was noted on the right wall with a clot attached,” progress notes filed May 29-30 at the hospital stated. “Within the pelvis, the bladder is partially distended.”

Newton had surgery June 12 to remove the tumor and surgical information on file states that staff was “able to access the right lateral bladder wall tumor, which was resected in its entirety.”

Medical records state that the plan was for Newton to have a “surveillance cystoscopy every three months.”

In September, Newton’s right side still hurt. He went into the VA for a cystoscopy, but no adverse conditions were reported.

On Nov. 5, Newton saw a private physician in Columbia County to get a second opinion on why his side continued to hurt.

According to diagnostic report from the Center for Primary Care in Evans, an ultrasound found a 2-centimeter cyst and several small stones scattered throughout his left kidney. Newton was prescribed allopurinol, a drug used primarily to treat excess uric acid in blood plasma.

The veteran said he took the prescription to the VA to get it filled on Dec. 10, when a cystoscopy confirmed multiple small tumors – possibly as many 12 – had formed in his bladder, according to progress notes filed by the medical center nine days after the appointment.

Newton, however, said he was told he could not get the medication unless he had gout. Four days later he returned to the VA with a swollen right foot. An assessment by the hospital found he had an “acute gouty attack,” according to progress notes filed Dec. 19. The hospital scheduled another resection for the tumors.

“I felt like my life was in danger,” Newton said of canceling the appointment. “The VA ignored everything the doctor in Columbia County wanted to do. If the tumor had gotten to the muscular layer, I would have had three years – plus or minus one year – of my life left. I didn’t like my odds.”

Hospital spokesman Pete Scovill said it is not uncommon for patients to seek treatment from both public and private facilities, but said it is rare for VA staff not to explore every treatment plan possible. He urged any veteran who wishes to appeal their case to call his office at (706) 733-0188.

“If they come to us and give us a chance to review their case, we will do our best to resolve any issues they may have,” he said.

The Newtons said they are unsure if they plan to sue the hospital. However, Romaine Newton said all this could have been avoided.

“If Michael presented them with a symptom, the VA would order a MRI or an ultrasound, but the underlying cause of the problem, they would not try to determine what it was,” she said. “That is the way they work.”

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