Texas veteran died waiting for care that never came
By Sig Christenson | San Antonio Express-News | Published: May 14, 2014
SAN ANTONIO — An Austin physician said Tuesday that one of his cancer patients died while waiting for two months to start chemotherapy at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple — even after the doctor told officials to begin the treatment immediately.
Anson Dale Richardson, an Army combat medic who served two tours in Vietnam, died suddenly Nov. 4 in an Austin hospital. He had been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in September.
Both his widow, Carolyn Richardson, and the doctor said Richardson was gravely ill and they do not blame the VA for his death. But they also believe inexplicable delays by the VA robbed Richardson, 67, of the one shot he had of surviving throat cancer.
“They kept talking about the treatments — it was going to be rough, it was going to be hard on him and they didn't know if it was going to work or not, and I can understand that because nobody has a guarantee, I do know that,” said Richardson, 71, of Giddings. “But I just wish he'd had a chance.”
The doctor declined to be identified, but he spoke with the San Antonio Express-News after he contacted the office of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
A surgeon with 29 years experience, the doctor subcontracted with the VA, but he said he no longer would do so.
Cornyn asked Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to look into the case, one in a growing number of problems that raise questions about the quality of VA care, as well as allegations of possible cover-ups at facilities around the country.
Claims of VA workers manipulating information to obscure the true nature of waits at department facilities sparked a scandal after 40 deaths were reported at VA hospital in Phoenix, where it's alleged that officials kept a secret list of patients who waited months for health care.
A San Antonio whistleblower has alleged that waiting lists for appointments were doctored at VA clinics here and in Austin to mask a problem with patient backlogs.
The agency repeatedly has denied the allegations made by medically retired Army Sgt. Brian Turner, a scheduling clerk with the North Central Federal Clinic on Henderson Pass, and said he had recanted.
Tuesday, however, Turner said he stood “100 percent” behind the claims.
“And I have proof, evidence and other employees backing the same information, the same allegations,” said Turner, 40, adding that the claims are identical to those made in Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina. “They are that the clerks were coached into altering the desired dates on some — not all — appointments to the next available date, which does not reflect the true wait time.”
The VA last week said no one seeking care in Texas' nine Veterans Affairs hospitals and 36 clinics had died because of delays in appointments, but that was before the Austin physician contacted Cornyn's office Monday.
Cornyn told Shinseki in a letter Tuesday that the doctor diagnosed Richardson with laryngeal cancer in September and informed VA officials he needed immediate chemotherapy.
“Two months later, the surgeon called the VA to follow up and was told he never had the chemo treatment, with no good excuse as to why,” Cornyn wrote.
People knew Richardson by his middle name, Dale.
A high school dropout from the East Texas town of Athens, he was a combat medic in Vietnam from 1967-69, and later worked as a heavy equipment operator.
He was diagnosed with PTSD and didn't talk much about the war even with his wife, and seemed to like his job because it kept him apart from his co-workers. But when old war buddies came to town, they would drink and party.
Richardson's health went downhill last year. His weight fell from 160 pounds in late 2012 to about 120 pounds last fall. A chain smoker, he had a slight, undetected heart attack in 1992.
Last May, he complained of a sore throat, earache and headache while seeing a VA doctor in La Grange. His widow said Richardson's records show the physician said the symptoms could be several things.
But in early August, tests at the Olin E. Teague Veterans' Center in Temple revealed a tumor. The Austin doctor did a biopsy on Sept. 11. Eight days later, he phoned the hospital.
“This is a cancer that would potentially obstruct his breathing, so I made a personal call to the clinic and talked to the (physician's assistant) and said, 'Look, you guys need to start him on chemo now and if you wait he's going to obstruct.'
“So then two months go by and I get a call: 'He needs a trach,'” he said. “Well, I said, 'Gosh, it didn't work?' 'Well, he hadn't had any treatment.' I'm going, 'Two months and you haven't done anything?'”
The Austin doctor agreed to do a tracheotomy at an Austin hospital and believed the Teague Center would quickly begin chemotherapy, but another roadblock appeared. The Teague Center told the doctor it didn't take new tracheotomy patients.
They arranged for the VA to provide supplies to Richardson so he could leave the hospital that Friday and go home. He then would drive to Temple the next week to begin treatment.
The supplies and equipment never came. Deborah Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, would not comment, citing patient privacy law.
Richardson never left the hospital in Austin. While the procedure went well, he began struggling the next day and fell into a deep sleep. He died the next day.
“I stood right there and held him in my arms,” Carolyn Richardson recalled.
The next day, the Austin doctor quit the VA in frustration. He can't explain why Richardson couldn't get timely care and can't recall another case like it in his two years as a subcontractor.
“He might not have lived,” the surgeon said. “But he didn't have to die that way.”