Veteran's wife critical of care delivered by VA for her disabled husband

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Jake Magee
Sunday, July 13, 2014

JANESVILLE—Francis Hatch has overcome obstacles in the 24 years since his injury in the military, but his wife said the Veterans Administration hasn't been doing its job well to help her husband.

Hatch, 44, can laugh, play and even say a few words, despite being without a pulse for 10 minutes after a bad reaction to medication two years ago. The medication had been prescribed by a VA doctor to combat Hatch's night terrors.

Hatch served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1989. During his service, he saw his childhood friend ripped in half when his parachute opened while caught on a plane ramp before a jump.

Francis was honorably discharged and ended up homebound after he broke his feet and injured his back in a bad jump, requiring surgery.

The VA has received nationwide attention for allegations of poor care to veterans, and Deanna Hatch said her husband's story is no exception.

On Oct. 12, 2012, a month after doctors at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison put Francis on heavy medication to regulate his night terrors, Deanna found Francis in his room blue-faced and without a pulse. It was a result of the medication, she said. 

Paramedics shocked him three times to restart his heart.

He was rushed to St. Mary's Janesville Hospital, where he flatlined again before being revived a second time. He was airlifted to St. Mary's in Madison and put on life support.

After several tests, Francis was taken off life support and transferred to the VA hospital in Madison, where he was declared to be in a “persistent vegetative state,” Deanna said.

Doctors told his family he would never wake.

VA staff recommended putting Francis in a nursing home, but Deanna insisted she wanted to care for her husband herself.

“If there was 1 percent chance that you would come out of a vegetative state, it would be by being in your (familiar) surroundings,” she said.

Deanna took Francis home, where taking care of him is more than a full-time job for her; their daughter Katie Bautista; Deanna's mother, Candice McDaniels; and the rest of the Hatch family. They change his position in bed every two hours, massage him, take him out of bed and stimulate his mind by talking to him.

Deanna said she had trouble with the VA after Francis went under his family's care. She had issues contacting the VA for medication refills, Bautista said.

“You think they would support families or help. No. Nothing,” Deanna said. “They dropped him off and said, 'Here's your supplies,' and that was it.”

Francis was assigned a physician's assistant and got a doctor for the first time last week, she said.

Deanna made appointments the VA canceled at the last minute, she said. Instead of doctors scheduling regular checkups for Francis, Deanna had to make calls for lab tests to measure Francis' vitals, a situation she called “ridiculous.”

A few months ago, Francis began mumbling and even screaming. The family knew Francis had woken from his vegetative state.

“We told the VA that this was going on, and they didn't believe us,” Bautista said.

“They said, 'There's no way he's awake,'” Deanna said.

Francis started vomiting, his color changed and his vitals dropped. Deanna wanted Francis taken to the VA to get checked out, but the hospital told her to “keep an eye on him,” Deanna said.

She dialed 911 and got Francis to Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center, where it was discovered Francis was bleeding internally. Mercy staff set up a brain scan that confirmed Francis was awake.

Deanna feels grateful for the care Mercy staff gave Francis even though he's not their patient.

Deanna sent proof of Francis' brain activity to the VA, and they told her they'd set up an appointment to evaluate him. It took more than two months to see a VA doctor, she said.

The neurologist who evaluated Francis couldn't believe he was awake. The problems didn't end there, though; improper medication doses caused Francis to have a grand mal seizure four months ago, Deanna said.

Deanna called Rep. Paul Ryan's office for help. That's when the VA said it would transfer Francis' care to the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, where he would get physical therapy, speech therapy and proper medication. His family would learn how to care for him, Deanna said.

The problem is getting him there.

When Francis travels 40 minutes in an ambulance to the VA Hospital in Madison, his post-traumatic stress disorder flares. His blood pressure rises. He screams. He cries, and he shuts down, Bautista said.

“Then when he comes home, he might not talk to us for two days,” Deanna said. “That's jeopardizing him. He could go back into a vegetative state.”

Medical staff at the Minneapolis VA hospital and Francis' family believe he needs to be airlifted to Minneapolis to minimize the risk of harm.

Staff at the Madison VA hospital said he should be taken by ambulance, a drive of more than four hours, Deanna said.

“Putting him in an ambulance for a four-and-a-half-, five-hour drive is detrimental. We risk losing him,” she said.

Beloit At-Home Healthcare case manager Kathy Harnack works closely with the Hatches to change Francis' catheter once a month. She received a call from a Madison VA representative asking her opinion on the best course for Francis.

“I basically said, 'Well, I have to say whatever Deanna feels is the most appropriate way to transfer, I would definitely go that route,'” Harnack said. “She (the representative) mentioned it would be very costly. My understanding was $23,000.”

The VA representative told Harnack a flight could take up to two hours, perhaps longer if it's delayed, which isn't much shorter than a four-hour ambulance ride. That on top of the cost makes the VA hesitant to airlift Francis, Harnack said.

“Yet, if he was in a rest home everyday, it would so expensive,” Deanna's mother, Candice McDaniels, said.

“We save them so much money by caring for him … that hopefully went to another veteran,” Deanna said. “We can't even get a helicopter ride for him?”

The Madison VA can't comment on any specific patient, but transportation is determined by what medical professionals deem best, said Tim Donovan, public affairs officer for the Madison VA.

“We do strive to provide the best care and service we can,” he said. “We welcome any contact with any veterans and their families to discuss their care and improve their care in the process.”

Deanna applied for a Special Adaptive Housing grant from the VA that would allow her home to be modified to better accommodate Francis. Despite Francis being eligible, he was denied, she said.

“They said he wasn't disabled enough,” Bautista said. “No veteran should get this treatment.”

“Madison VA, I guarantee you, do not offer the tools to succeed to have a loved one at home by no means,” Deanna said. “It's wrong, and I don't wanna see it happen to another person. They don't even deserve to be open.”

“How many vets out there are going through the same thing?” McDaniels asked.

“In all reality, they are jeopardizing him because they don't want to pay,” Deanna said. “If we weren't taking care of him, they'd be paying a lot more than that.”

Deanna hopes the story of Francis' struggle gets him the care he needs. She wants a chance to get her husband back.

“Maybe there'll be one day where he can, when I'm stressed out, wrap his arms around me and tell me he loves me and it's gonna be OK,” Deanna said.

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