Utah parents sue VA, alleging poor care led to son's death
The parents of a military veteran who died days after back surgery have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs, alleging their 30-year-old son died after being sent home prematurely from the hospital.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court describes in detail the anguish Gregory Lynn Smith and Jeri Bolinder have experienced since their son's death, which they allege could have been simply prevented. "The future is gone, along with all the laughs and the teasing that [we] would have enjoyed together," Gregory Lynn Smith states in the complaint.
A spokesman with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the department does not comment on pending litigation. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, which will defend the department in the case, also declined comment.
A 1998 graduate of Tooele High School, Gregory Lee Smith volunteered for the U.S. Army after the 9/11 attack and served with the Airborne Infantry in South Korea and Louisiana. In 2005, he received a medical discharge from the U.S. Army after injuring his back, according to the complaint.
Upon his return to Utah, Smith enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, where he studied criminal justice in hopes of becoming a police officer like his father once his back healed. Smith was treated with pain medication and then underwent two surgeries, one of which involved implanting a temporary electric stimulator in his back.
On Oct. 19, 2010, Smith underwent a third surgery at VA Medical Center, during which a permanent stimulator was implanted. He expected to spend two to three days at the hospital after the surgery, the complaint states.
But a day later, even though his blood oxygen levels were unstable, the surgeon ordered Smith to be discharged, according to the court filing. Smith's roommate, an emergency medical technician, asked that Smith be sent home with oxygen or, because of his sleep apnea, a CPAP machine. But Smith was told to contact his regular physician, according to the lawsuit. He was given a prescription for morphine; physicians at the VA Medical Center had previously given Smith prescriptions for seven other pain and migraine medications.
Smith allegedly told the surgeon he was uncomfortable going home so quickly and, according to the complaint, was told it was better for him to leave than risk "getting staph or pneumonia here."
Smith continued to express concern to his roommate and to a nurse, telling them he felt "they are kicking me out to make another bed for another patient. I am afraid of leaving so soon." But he was sent home.
By the afternoon of the next day, Smith felt ill and then began vomiting. He declined to go to the emergency room and went to sleep around 9:30 p.m. His roommate observed Smith sleeping soundly around midnight. She found him dead around 7 a.m. the next morning. An autopsy concluded Smith died from "an acute mixed drug intoxication involving his prescription medications."
The complaint alleges Smith's death could have been avoided if one of four things happened: he remained longer in the hospital or was sent home with oxygen, a CPAP machine or an oxygen monitor to alert his house mates to any breathing problems.