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The story of Willie Dougherty:
Death by VA neglect

March 23, 2007 | Page 4

WILLIE DOUGHERTY, a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran, died last October after what his family describes four weeks of mistreatment and neglect by the Veterans' Administration (VA) medical system, now under fire because of the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Dougherty's story remained untold until earlier this month, when Democracy Now! broadcast a segment on the case, after learning about it from a Texas journalism student.

SHAY EVERITT is a journalism student at Sam Houston State University. She investigated Dougherty's tragic story, but no newspaper published the article she wrote. Here, with her permission, Socialist Worker prints Shay's story about the needless death of Willie Dougherty.

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AFTER A series of tragic events, a disabled and decorated Texas veteran died due to injuries suffered while going to get the mail.

Vietnam War veteran Willie G. Dougherty died on October 27, 2006, at the Veterans Administration hospital in Houston at the age of 58 after nearly a month of mistreatment following a golf cart accident. Dougherty's wife is leading a fight to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

What else to read

The transcript of the Democracy Now! segment on Willie Dougherty's death, "Veteran Dies After VA Refuses Treatment for Days," is available at the show's Web site.

 

Dougherty had been awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his combat duty, and served as a Travis County, Texas veteran officer for 10 years fighting for veterans' benefits. Having spoken all over the United States, he was extremely involved in veteran affairs.

His widow, Jean Stentz, says his death was due to the neglect of the Veterans Administration medical system. Aiding her in her fight for justice is Commander Harold Davis of American Legion Post 629, in Camilla, Texas. "You don't have to go to Washington D.C. to find veterans being neglected. It is right here in San Jacinto County," Davis said.

The Dougherty family crusade to have Willie admitted into the VA Hospital in Houston began on September 29, 2006. That day, on his way to get the mail, Willie had a golf cart accident that left him with two pelvic fractures.

Willie was paralyzed on his right side while fighting in the Vietnam War. The Veterans Administration considered him to be 100 percent disabled. Dougherty's widow blames the accident on his disability. "On his way to get the mail, his paralyzed foot got stuck on the gas pedal, and the golf cart fell on him," she explained.

After the accident, EMS took him to Livingston Memorial Hospital Emergency Room, where Jean was told they did not have the doctors to treat him. Since Willie was insured by the VA, she asked if he could be transferred to the VA Hospital in Houston. Due to federal restrictions and the fact that it was Labor Day weekend, Jean was told he could not be transferred until five days later.

For the time being, he was admitted into Christus Hospital (St. Elizabeth's) in Beaumont, Texas. When the time came to be transferred to the VA Hospital, the doctor ordered Willie to be discharged and sent home, which made it impossible for him to be transferred. "When the doctor discharged him, Willie still had blood in his catheter and was sweating profusely from fever and in intense pain," Jean said.

After pleading with the hospital staff, the Dougherty family contacted personnel at the VA Hospital, who said there was no room available.

The other reason, according to doctors at the VA Hospital, Willie could not be admitted was because he had refused therapy twice. Jean said that both times, his pain was too extensive to receive rehabilitation.

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AFTER BEING denied admittance to the VA Hospital, Willie was sent home, still with a broken pelvic bone and in severe pain. "They loaded him into a wheelchair in the back of a van and dropped him off in our driveway. No one called or rang the doorbell to tell us...they just left him there," Jean said.

The VA then informed Jean that if she personally paid for an ambulance to bring him to Houston, he could be admitted into the hospital. Jean had a local ambulance service transport him to the VA Hospital, where he sat outside of the emergency room on a stretcher for eight hours.

The staff then ran tests which showed he had a bladder and a lung infection. Willie was given a prescription for antibiotics that were not meant to cure any type of illness he had. The VA Hospital would not admit him because a doctor said he was not "sick enough," and he was sent home by ambulance.

After two days of Willie being cared for solely by his family, the VA authorized him to go to Green Acres Nursing Home in Huntsville, Texas. "This place was filthy. They didn't have a glass of water for him, there were boxes in his room...it was awful," Jean said.

After almost 48 hours at the nursing home, a nurse had him sent to a Huntsville emergency room, where he received medical care from numerous hospital personnel and was authorized to be transferred to the VA Hospital in Houston.

On October 15, after 16 days, Dougherty finally received medical care from the VA. He had a lung infection, a bladder infection, pneumonia, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, and fractures in his pelvic bone.

"Willie was in ICU and the doctor said he was the sickest person they had in the hospital. I mean, this is a man that is 58 and has had a golf cart accident, there is no reason for him to be dead or even near death," Jean said.

The doctor who was overseeing Willie's condition called a family meeting and told the family that Willie's infections overtook his body, and he had no chance of survival.

Because the autopsy officially attributed the cause of death to the golf cart accident, his wife does not receive any medical or military benefits. Jean said the reason she is writing letters to the government and the VA is not because benefits were taken away, but because she wants something to be done for the future veterans of America.

"Our fathers, our husbands, sons and daughters should get what the government promised them when they enlisted and this should come before any foreign aid. They have fought for our country and have earned the right to be taken care of," Jean said.

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