Workers at Utah VA hospital under fire for treating a veteran patient in a dirty room ‘just didn’t see’ how dirty it was, chief of staff says

(Courtesy Stephen Wilson) Stephen Wilson tweeted photos taken during his son's appointment in a dirty room at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karen Gribbin, M.D. and Chief of Staff of Salt Lake City Veterans Administration Hospital responds to photos of a dirty clinic room tweeted over the weekend by a veteran at a press conference Monday April 30.

A top medical official at the Salt Lake City veterans hospital again apologized Monday for the dirty room where a patient was treated.

Karen Gribbin, chief of staff for health care at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said that staff members were focused on ending the wait for veteran Christopher Wilson when they showed him to the unkempt room April 5.

“They just didn’t see the state of the room,” Gribbin said of the staffers.

Wilson later Monday was skeptical of that explanation.

“That’s the first thing I noticed when they opened the door,” Wilson said in a telephone interview, “and I don’t believe for a second that [staff] didn’t notice either.”

Wilson served in the Army and had two tours in Iraq. He sought care for his service-related injury at the hospital.

News of the dirty room began spreading on social media Friday after his father, Stephen Wilson, tweeted photos taken during his son’s podiatry appointment.

The photos showed an overflowing trash can and plaster in a sink, on a counter and on the floor. Wilson later learned, he tweeted, that the room is typically used to build and remove casts for patients with diabetic ulcers.

Those photos rocketed across social media Friday, prompting apologies from the hospital system’s chief of staff and triggering an investigation.

Wilson is scheduled to appear Tuesday on the Fox News morning program “Fox & Friends,” he said.

Gribbin, who apologized over the weekend, again gave Monday what she called a “sincere apology” to Wilson.

“This is not the kind of patient experience we strive for in Salt Lake City,” Gribbin told reporters at an afternoon news conference.

Gribbin, a physician, said a review is underway. She said discipline is possible for the staff members, but she emphasized that administrators are still trying to learn what occurred.

“Staff really is quite upset this happened,” she said.

Gribbin said the day of Wilson’s visit was a busy one, yet she made no excuses for the room. She said VA staff operates as a team and, if housekeeping wasn’t available to clean the room, other staffers should have pitched in to do so before taking a patient into the room.

When asked whether any policies were violated by taking Wilson into the untidy room, Gribbin replied: “It was certainly not within practice.”

And when asked whether the room was actually unsanitary, Gribbin replied: “I think it was unsightly.”

But staffers “feel the frustration of the veterans who are waiting” and wanted Wilson to receive treatment, so they took him into the room without noticing the mess, she said.

Wilson, 33, said he was medically discharged in 2008 with the rank of sergeant. He declined to discuss how he received his injuries but said he is a combat veteran.

He said he has been getting treatment at the VA since his discharge.

“It seems like it’s going downhill rather than uphill,” he said.

He said he appreciated Gribbin calling him Saturday morning to apologize but also found that she was making excuses.

“The way she talked on the phone, it seemed like it was more of a covering my a-- call,” Wilson said. “She seemed to kind of explain that health care is a messy business sometimes.”

On Monday, Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said Christopher Wilson’s experience was “completely unacceptable.”

“I will work to find out additional details in order to understand what must be done to prevent this from happening again,” Love said in a statement. “I recently visited the facility and plan to follow up with others in the very near future.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a former Air Force major, said he will see that the situation is resolved quickly.

“This situation at the VA center in Salt Lake City is unacceptable,” Stewart said in a statement. “As a former Air Force pilot myself, I know our veterans deserve to be treated like the heroes they are.”

Some veterans defended the Salt Lake City VA on Monday.

Darrel Roberts, age 70, commander of American Legion Post 71 in Holladay, said he received excellent care at the hospital when he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident a few years ago. Other veterans with no insurance rely on the Salt Lake City VA for all their medical care, he said.

“If we get rid of the VA hospital,” Roberts said, “we won’t have anything, anything at all for the veterans.”

Andrew Wilson is a Vietnam War veteran and one of the founders of the Utah County Veterans Council. He called the Salt Lake City VA an “exceptional facility.”

Wilson, who is no relation to the family who took the photos, said those photos won’t have much traction with veterans who rely on the Salt Lake City facility for their care. He said he would be more concerned if the dirty room was at a VA hospital with a greater history of problems.

“If this was the VA in Virginia, I’d be up in arms,” Wilson said. “I’d say, ‘I want to see the other rooms.’ ”

VA hospitals across the country have had multiple scandals related to wait time and quality of care in recent years. The Salt Lake City VA has fared better than most of its counterparts. In 2015, the director of the Salt Lake City VA, Steven Young, was sent to Phoenix to take over a VA medical center there that was at the center of a scandal that gained nationwide attention after extended waits were blamed for patient deaths.

In October, the union representing Department of Veterans Affairs and about a dozen VA workers held a rally outside the Salt Lake City VA hospital to demand that the agency fill tens of thousands of vacant positions around the country to help boost veterans′ care and improve working conditions.

Protesters held signs that read: “VA vacancies go up. Vet care goes down.” Passing cars honked to show their support.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Talcott, who works in therapy at the VA, joins other members of the American Federation of Government Employees and veterans at a rally at George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City Monday, Oct. 16, to highlight dangerously low staffing levels at the facility.

Shortages can be found across a range of job titles at the Salt Lake City VA, from housekeepers to medical staff in the intensive care unit, Clayton McDaniel, local president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many VA workers, said during the rally.

Reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this story.