Dallas Veterans' Hospital Shutters Psych Ward After Fourth Patient Suicide of Year

The fourth suicide this year among mentally ill patients treated at the Dallas VA Medical Center has led the hospital to close its psychiatric ward to new patients, and investigators from the national Veterans Affairs office are expected to arrive next week to assess safety.

Joseph Dalpiaz, director of the VA North Texas Health Care System, ordered the shutdown after a man hanged himself April 4. The hospital stopped admitting patients to its 51-bed psychiatric unit the next day; 10 previously admitted veterans are still being treated there.

Dalpiaz "decided he wanted to ... give us some time to assess the environment of care and make sure things were as safe as possible in our patient unit," said Dr. Catherine Orsak, head of mental health for the VA's North Texas health system.

She said the hospital has increased staffing and checks to ensure the safety of the patients still being treated.

In January, two men who met in the hospital's psychiatric ward committed suicide days after being released. In February, a veteran in the ward hanged himself on a frame attached to his wheelchair.

Orsak said the hospital has spent more than $250,000 the past six months to eliminate suicide risks. Door knobs were replaced, shower curtains and plumbing were retrofitted, and light fixtures were modified to remove rigid outcroppings veterans might use in hanging themselves.

Shirley Bemps, whose husband committed suicide in the psychiatric ward in February, said she blames doctors for his death.

"If he was a high-risk patient like they said, he should have been watched and monitored," Bemps said. "They haven't called me to offer condolences. They won't even respond to me. I just feel cheated."

Orsak said she did not know when the psychiatric unit would reopen to new patients. In the meantime, she said mentally ill veterans are being treated at VA hospitals in Waco and Temple and nearby private treatment centers.