Surgeon Investigated in Deaths of Several Veterans

A number of U.S. veterans have died under the care of the same surgeon.

And officials have taken notice.

Bob Shank was in good spirits as he awaited gallstone-removal surgery at a veterans hospital in August, laughing as he handed his wife his false teeth for safekeeping.

If the 50-year-old Air Force veteran had any worries, it was whether his wife would be able to understand the postoperative instructions from his surgeon, Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez, a Bolivian-trained physician with a thick accent.

"Pay close attention to what the doctor says, that you'll understand him," Shank pressed her as he was wheeled off to the operating room.

They were the last words Katrina Shank ever heard from him. Her husband never woke up from surgery, and by the next day he had bled to death.

Shank, it turns out, was far from the only surgical patient to die under Veizaga-Mendez's care. Nine veterans — all in some way linked to Veizaga-Mendez, officials say — died in a six-month period ending in March, during which the hospital would have expected only two deaths.

Even before Veizaga-Mendez was hired at the Veterans Administration hospital, he had made payouts in two malpractice suits in Massachusetts and was under investigation there on suspicion of botching seven cases, two of which ended in deaths.

How the surgeon came to practice on veterans has raised troubling questions about the VA's screening of its doctors — and about how much those who hired him in Illinois did to check his background in Massachusetts.

"I can't imagine how even the most rudimentary check of the last hospitals he was on staff at would not have revealed gigantic problems with this guy," Jim Harmon, an attorney for Katrina Shank, said this week. He has filed a claim on her behalf against the U.S. government, a precursor to a lawsuit.

Veizaga-Mendez, 69, resigned three days after Shank's death, and the VA hospital, which has 55 acute-care beds and is about 120 miles from St. Louis, suspended all surgery shortly after. The deaths involving Veizaga-Mendez are still under investigation, and details have not been released.

Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama wrote a letter Thursday to the VA, pressing acting Secretary Gordon Mansfield to detail the steps the agency took to check the surgeon's credentials. They said a cursory check of publicly available information by their staffs quickly raised red flags about the doctor.

"This is an extremely alarming revelation that calls into question the adequacy of the oversight exercised by the VA as it evaluates and monitors those who provide care to our veterans," the senators wrote.

Pete McBrady, acting director of the Marion VA Medical Center, said this week that the vetting process for job applicants typically includes checking licenses in other states and any records in the National Practitioner Data Bank, which includes malpractice claims. A panel of physicians also goes over personal references.

McBrady said that Veizaga-Mendez had a valid, unrestricted medical license in Massachusetts and Illinois when he was hired in January 2006 and that background checks did not reveal any prior or pending disciplinary action.

It turns out that at the time he was hired in Illinois, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine was investigating allegations of substandard care made against Veizaga-Mendez in 2004 and 2005, said board spokesman Russell Aims. The allegations involved seven patients, two of whom died.

But the VA would not have had access to that information because complaints are confidential while they are being investigated, Aims said.

In July 2006, six months after Veizaga-Mendez was hired at Marion, he voluntarily surrendered his Massachusetts license under pressure from the board. The board's Web site listed the action as "non-disciplinary," the term sometimes used when a physician agrees to stop practicing in the state.

Once Veizaga-Mendez gave up his license, the board was free to make the allegations public, Aims said.

Veizaga-Mendez, whose Illinois license remains valid pending a December hearing, has no listed telephone number in Illinois and Massachusetts and has been unreachable for comment.

Veizaga-Mendez graduated from medical school in Bolivia in 1965 and got his medical license in Massachusetts in 1975. He practiced at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro from 1976 to 2005.

The doctor's patients in Massachusetts included a 74-year-old man who developed low blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat and had a bloody chest tube after Veizaga-Mendez operated on him in 2002 to remove a lung tumor. In its report, the board said the doctor failed to diagnose the patient's postoperative bleeding and did not return him to the operating room until the next day. The man died two days later.

Another patient, 58-year-old Jeronimo Coronado, was operated on by Veizaga-Mendez in 2000 to treat severe heartburn. The board said a surgical error by the doctor led to a pulled stitch and a post-operative leak he failed to diagnose "within a reasonable time," causing Coronado to develop infection, sepsis and respiratory failure. Additional surgery proved unsuccessful, and the man died.

Coronado's family settled a lawsuit against Veizaga-Mendez for a confidential sum, said the family's attorney, Bennett Bergman.

In three decades of handling medical malpractice cases, Bergman said, Veizaga-Mendez is "among the very worst I've ever run into."

In a case not detailed in the Massachusetts board report, a Massachusetts jury last March awarded Robert Whitney $652,000 on his claim that Veizaga-Mendez mistakenly put two stitches into his bladder during a 1997 hernia operation.

Whitney said he repeatedly went back to the surgeon to complain of intense abdominal pain, blood in his urine and other symptoms. "He kept handing me pain pills and antibiotics. He said, `Maybe you've got a kidney stone. Go see a urologist,'" recalled Whitney, 44.

The complications hounded Whitney for nearly four years until, after seeing numerous specialists and having multiple invasive tests done, two other doctors discovered the misplaced sutures. By then, Whitney said, the ordeal had cost him his marriage and left him addicted to painkillers.

"It ruined my whole life," he said.

But Marie Gallotello, a 78-year-old patient from Woonsocket, R.I., spoke in glowing terms of how Veizaga-Mendez cared for her four years ago after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Veizaga-Mendez performed surgery to remove her lymph nodes.

"He's very kind, very gentle, and he was very, very thorough," Gallotello said. "You will never find another doctor made like that."

— Associated Press