Family sues after Tacoma veteran died waiting for heart surgery
By ALEXIS KRELL | The News Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 7, 2018
A Tacoma veteran who needed a new heart valve died after a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center waited too long to do his surgery, his widow's lawsuit says.
George Walker was 75 when he died at home July 1, 2016 -- days before he was scheduled for surgery at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, and a little more than a week after doctors knew he needed the operation, the complaint says.
"They absolutely shouldn't have sent him home," said attorney Jessica Holman Duthie, who represents the family.
She said Walker should have been in surgery within a day, and that she believes that would have happened at medical facilities outside the VA system.
Asked about the lawsuit, the VA Puget Sound said in a statement that it "mourns the loss of every Veteran. While VA does not typically comment on pending litigation, VA Puget Sound's wait times at both our Seattle and Tacoma locations are better, on average, than local non-VA hospitals as we are continually striving to improve our service and efficiency."
Peggy Walker said her husband served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1967, including about five years stationed at what now is Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
"He made me laugh every day," she said.
Her complaint, filed Nov. 7 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, gives this account of how he died:
George Walker called the VA's American Lake Division on June 20, 2016, to make an appointment with his doctor.
He said he had shortness of breath and chest pain, and the staff told him he should instead go to the American Lake Urgent Care.
The next day he did, and the Urgent Care staff had him taken by ambulance to the VA's Seattle Division to be checked out further for the next couple days.
He was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a hereditary narrowing of his aortic valve. The VA put him on a surgical wait list to get a new one, and then sent him home.
He learned June 24 that his surgery would be July 5.
On July 1, he died at home.
Peggy Walker said he grilled eggs and sausage for breakfast that morning, as usual, and decided to stay home as she ran errands.
About an hour later she found him in the camp chair where he liked to doze outside. She tried CPR, and then paramedics tried to save him for 45 minutes.
"They never told us how serious it was," she said about the VA health-care system. "If we didn't think we were going to get the right care there, we would have gone somewhere else. He was just a happy man who didn't know."
Wait times for VA services made national news in 2014, after allegations that employees misrepresented long delays for care for patients in Phoenix. The VA Puget Sound pointed to www.accesstocare.va.gov for information about current wait times.
Holman Duthie settled another case with the VA for $900,000 in 2015, following the death of a Sammamish man, Cliff Douglass, who died after a VA scheduler didn't promptly refer him for surgery for his melanoma.
"Problems that I've already litigated still come back up," she said.
Walker's lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
After Walker's death, his wife found paperwork that shows he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal in 1967 -- things he didn't talk about, she said.
He worked for almost 30 years as the foreman of a forklift shop at a Seattle warehouse, where his blue coveralls and white beard earned him the nickname Papa Smurf.
In addition to his wife, he's survived by stepchildren, an adopted son and grandchildren.
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