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Roy Mitchell, housed in Missouri veterans home, died of neglect, not coronavirus, his family says

By JACK SUNTRUP | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: November 11, 2020

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — Staff at the Mt. Vernon Veterans Home in southwest Missouri transferred Roy Mitchell, an 89-year-old dementia patient with COVID-19, to the hospital only after his wife insisted he be moved as his condition worsened.

When Mitchell, an Army veteran, arrived at the Freeman hospital in Joplin on Oct. 1, he was severely dehydrated, confused and wouldn't speak to emergency room staff, said Dr. Sandip Naik, who started treating Mitchell days later, referencing Mitchell's medical records.

"He should've come here earlier," Naik told the Post-Dispatch in an interview. "When he came here, I told you, he was so dehydrated, his sodium was up, he had kidney failure. Everything was bad at that time."

Mitchell of Anderson, Mo., died of "COVID-19 pneumonia" and "acute respiratory failure" on Oct. 10, according to his death certificate, which also notes Mitchell's dementia, advanced age, severe dehydration and hypernatremia, or high blood-sodium levels caused by lack of water.

In life, Mitchell was a resourceful and hard-working man, a member of the First Baptist Church in Anderson who kept a shop in his garage and liked to go fishing. He is survived by his widow, Janice, and five children.

Mitchell is one of at least 98 Missouri veterans home residents since September to die after contracting COVID-19, according to the Missouri Veterans Commission.

His case is one of several that independent investigators are examining as they prepare to deliver a report on the Missouri Veterans Commission's seven state-run nursing homes to state officials.

Mitchell's family is angry at the quality of care he received at the Mt. Vernon Veterans Home. They have voiced their frustrations on the veterans home's Facebook page, to the governor's office and now to the independent investigators working for the state.

"The books will say that my dad died on the 10th of October from COVID," said Mike Mitchell, one of Roy Mitchell's sons and spokesman for his family. "The reality is that he died from neglect — and COVID — he had COVID at the time, but he got no care."

If his father had been able to maintain nutrition and avoid dehydration, "he may have actually had a chance," Mike Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell's medical records, he initially tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 19; he was transferred to Freeman on Oct. 1.

Emergency room records say Mitchell's condition started to worsen a week before his transfer.

According to the Mt. Vernon home, the ER report says, "Patient is normally able to walk and somewhat take care of themselves. However, approximately 1 week ago they (the Mt. Vernon home) state(s) that the patient has been declining and becoming more lethargic.

"They state that the patient has not taken their medicines, eat or drink," the ER report says.

"No one ever said that he wasn't eating at all or that he wasn't able to eat," said Mike Mitchell, of Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Mike Mitchell said his mom insisted his dad be transferred to the hospital on Oct. 1 "amid concern that he was going to die" after she was briefed on his condition. He said staff never recommended his dad be transferred.

The family has other concerns. For example, his family was never able to recover dentures belonging to Mitchell after his death, indicating a lack of oral care, his family said.

Jamie Melchert, spokesman for the veterans commission, said hospital transfers are "determined by the medical director with family notification."

But according to nurses' notes made available to the family, Mitchell was only transferred because of his wife.

"Wife requested veteran be sent to Freeman Joplin for evaluation," an Oct. 1 entry said.

Melchert would not address Mitchell's case specifically when asked why he wasn't transported to the hospital sooner.

"MVC is deeply saddened by the loss of all who have died as a result of COVID-19," Melchert said in a statement. "As we have discussed in the past, MVC cannot discuss individual cases. However, in close collaboration with their individual health care providers, MVC strives to provide appropriate, high-quality care for all veterans in our homes."

Mike Mitchell has begun networking with families of other residents at the Mt. Vernon home, who are disturbed at the care their loved ones are receiving or have received.

The investigation of the state's veterans nursing homes, conducted by the St. Louis law firm Armstrong Teasdale, will cost Missouri taxpayers as much as $300,000.

The investigation follows a Sept. 15 visit by Gov. Mike Parson to the Mt. Vernon Veterans Home. During the visit, Parson said the Missouri Veterans Commission had set a nationwide standard for care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Mt. Vernon home's first case was the next day, on Sept. 16. Parson tested positive for COVID-19 a week later, on Sept. 23, though officials have said they don't believe he contracted the virus during the Mt. Vernon visit. He had attended numerous other in-person events days prior to his diagnosis.

Mitchell said Parson's staff failed the governor.

"I would hope his staff would do more to try to protect him, and to allow him to enter a facility that could potentially pose a risk to him and his wife ... ," Mitchell said. "They failed."

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