Metro

After family outcry, sick vet gets room at VA hospital

Heather Donald and her father, David White.

Heather Donald

Heather Donald and her father, David White.

A sick Navy veteran in desperate need of specialized care in Boston spent days in limbo in a hospital in Bangor, his family says, after the US Department of Veteran Affairs said it would only cover treatment at the medical center in West Roxbury — but that he could not go there, because no bed was available.

Heather Donald said it left her father, David White, with two choices: Wait for a bed to open up, or pay out of pocket to travel to Massachusetts General Hospital, where infectious disease specialists could fight the rapid-spreading bacterial disease affecting his lungs.

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Donald posted about her situation on Facebook Friday, and the Globe got in touch with her Saturday. After inquiries from the media, a spokeswoman from the VA medical center in West Roxbury said White would be transported Saturday to the West Roxbury campus.

“We value our relationships with our community and sister facilities and will continue to work together to deliver the highest quality care to veterans at the VA and in the community,” said VA spokeswoman Pallas Wahl in a statement. “We’re sorry for any frustration on the part of the family and remain committed to delivering the best care to our veterans.”

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Wahl said White had been accepted for transfer to the VA on Friday pending an open bed. She declined to confirm or deny Donald’s account, and did not respond to a question about why the bed opened after a reporter called.

Wahl said that there are a certain number of beds in every hospital for certain levels of care, and if there is not available room or a certain specialty of care at a VA facility, veterans are offered a program where they can get care in the community “at the cost of the VA.”

Donald said that offer was never made.

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“It shouldn’t have to be like this. You shouldn’t have to get the media involved, and congressmen, and put your entire life out there to get the care you should be guaranteed as a veteran,” said Donald. “Although I’m thrilled, the realistic side is, he’s a lucky one. We won, but there are many out there in this limbo where the VA is supposed to be taking care of them, and they’re just flat-out not.”

White, 66, was in the Navy and worked on airplanes during the Vietnam war, Donald said. He lives in Hertford, N.C., but visits his daughter and her family in Maine each summer, taking photos at Cadillac Mountain and watching his two grandsons play baseball in the backyard.

This year, he arrived in Maine on June 13, and started getting sick soon after. Doctors thought it was pneumonia at first, keeping him in the hospital only four days, and then sending him home with antibiotics and steroids

When he still had symptoms a week later, Donald took her dad back to the emergency room. He has spent the last three weeks in a bed at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, while Donald said doctors told her they were just keeping him alive, and that he needed to get to Boston. A spokeswoman for St. Joseph Hospital said the facility was aware of the case, but declined to comment on specifics.

Doctors recommended that Donald have her father airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital to work with specialists there. On Wednesday, Mass. General agreed to take White, said his sister-in-law, Maritza White, who traveled to Maine from her home in Houston when she heard how sick White had become. But when doctors learned that White is a veteran, they called the VA medical center in West Roxbury instead. That’s when the family says things got complicated.

West Roxbury didn’t yet have a bed for him, Donald and White said, but because the facility had the ability to give him the care he needed, the VA also wouldn’t pay for him to be transported elsewhere.

“Wednesday is when the clock started,” said Maritza White. “And Wednesday was a very critical day for David.”

His white blood counts were high, she said, and his blood pressure was low. Doctors tried a “hail Mary,” she said, and he started responding — but slowly.

“We were minute to minute instead of day to day,” said Maritza White. “The VA would not respond. We were up against a brick wall and we had to find our way around.”

Donald said they were told they could transport him to Mass General, but on their dime. On Friday, she said, they were told he was accepted for transfer to the West Roxbury VA pending a bed opening up — but they were given no estimate of when that would be. So the family began reaching out on social media and contacting members of Congress.

“The punch line for me personally is until the VA got involved, my dad was on his way to get the care he needed, and because he’s a vet, he’s literally being penalized,” said Donald.

Without public attention, Donald said, she believed her father would have spent at least the weekend and perhaps longer stuck in Bangor. Instead, he left for Boston in an ambulance at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Donald said.

“The doctor was saying it was so touch and go, his condition was stable one minute and unstable the next,” Donald said. “Who knows what would have happened.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com.
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