Lawsuit Links Phoenix VA Misdiagnosis To Veteran Suicide

Veteran Suicide

Benjamin KrauseOne new veteran suicide case brought by the wife of late US Army veteran Gene Spencer against VA for wrongful death could have deep impacts in VA health care.  One VA physician misdiagnosed lung cancer and told the veteran to go home to die. So the veteran took matters into his own hands with a gun four days later to cut short his death sentence.

This veteran suicide case will be interesting to follow in light of the misdiagnosis. Cases like this are tough because the suicidal veteran participated in his own demise, which may not be considered foreseeable. However, in some instances courts have sided with the family of the suicidal person.

Do you think VA should be on the hook for contributing to a suicide when malpractice is implicated in light of the agency’s persistent problems?

According to the complaint, the 67-year-old husband, writing, audiologist, building contractor and dog lover took his own life with a gun three days after the misdiagnosis. The day after he killed himself, VA called the family to inform them of the error.

The complaint claims VA induced lung problems by using too much radiation to treat the veteran’s colon cancer, in 2010. The radiation destroyed his immune system, and the veteran was giving a 3-5 year life expectancy.

RELATED: Are VA Patient Advocates Giving Bad Federal Tort SF-95 Claim Advice?

Pain from Spencer’s colon condition prevented him from making good on a bucket list he drew up that included a trip to Hawaii with his wife. One day before the trip, fluid in Spencer’s lungs prevented the trip. A botched surgery to treat the fluid problem by VA doctors resulted in a misdiagnosis of cancer.

According to The Republic:

One day later, the letter says, Spencer and Fobke were advised that adenocarcinoma had metastasized in Spencer’s lungs and “nothing more would be done in the way of treatment. … (The doctor) told them to go home and get his final affairs in order. At best, Gene would have a few weeks to live.”

“He was in pain that entire weekend,” Fobke recalled during her interview. “He kept apologizing because he thought we had so much more time, and he was leaving me with a Great Dane puppy.”

Fobke said her husband had witnessed a friend’s suffering from terminal cancer. He chose a different path on Oct. 8, 2012: “When I came home from an errand, the front door was wide open,” Fobke recalled, weeping. “I called for him. I looked down the hall, and there was a bloodstain.”

Fobke said she dialed 911 and later notified the VA hospital that her husband would not make his next chemotherapy appointment because he was deceased.

One day passed, Fobke said, and the surgeon called to say, “‘Mrs. Spencer, I have such great news for you. … That fluid around the lungs is not cancer.’ I said, ‘Well, if you looked at your files you’d know he died yesterday.'”

It will be interesting to see how suicide cases like this are tried moving forward in light of VA’s persistent failures. Do you think VA should pay up when a suicide connected to medical malpractice?


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  1. My husband died from leukemia over 20 years ago. We have had a claim for benefits pending since then. He was exposed to agent Orange. Now the VA has enrolled him in a medical inurance plan. I keep getting mail congratulating him on now being insured.

  2. What do I think some of my medical records for you just last week I was bleeding everywhere they did nothing This 64 yr old male here for f/u.not sure what reason.not on any blood
    thineer,always bleed more from right leg when it stays hanging.
    Pt. with no other somatic complaints. Discussed meds and labs.R knee below w bone graft on tibia after accident –ran into landing geasr air
    craft accident,cont hydrocodone prnDepressive disorder : cont f/u with MHChief complaint:
    Pt unsure of why he is visiting with PCP on today. Pt has a large amount
    of blood on the foot stool of his power chair, pt sts that the blood is from
    the wound on his lower right leg.
    Med Reconciliation for Home Meds (VA and Non VA Medications)Patient is taking all medication listed on the Meds Tab in CPRS.
    On a scale of 0-10 how do you rate your primary pain?
    Patient report of acceptable level (based on above scales): 5
    Based on patient response, pain is a problem at this time and intervention
    is requested.
    Patient was screened for pain and reported a score of 10 (04/20/2015
    The patient describes pain as
    Comment: Throbbing
    The patient states primary pain
    Area(s): Other:right lower leg
    The patient states the onset of pain was
    Post operative/post procedure
    Patient states pain is increased by
    Comment: Other:sitting

  3. There was a post several weeks ago from a VA C&P examiner (I think they were PA and not even a doctor) who just as well have said that veterans seeking comp for injuries (especially type II diabetes were liars and frauds. Did ANYONE make a copy of that? And if so, would you PLEASE email a copy to me at [email protected] or send me a link to it so that I can copy it myself? Much appreciated

  4. Should the VA be held liable in this lawsuit? Absolutely. When you look at the totality of the case, too much radiation, puncturing his lung, unable to schedule an appointment, unable to get pain meds, it seems clear their overall negligence out him in a frame of mind that no matter what he did, Spencer had nowhere to turn for help.
    My question is, how much has McCain or any other political hack in Arizone know about these problems and ignored them? Are their many instances of vets contacting congressional offices for help and being ignored like at Tomah?
    As for Helman and Phoenix, at what point will the VA, Congress, FBI or whoever look into the systemic abuse that had been ongoing at Phoenix and elsewhere?

    1. Was just wondering about this today. With Senator McCain a Veteran War Hero, and regardless of him happening to marrying into the Budweiser Dynasty, he is a Veteran, is a Senator, LIVES in ARIZONA…and that particular VAMC/VARO has even above the top things wrong with it than the VA as a whole collectively has, and since McCain has this happening in his own ‘back yard’, perhaps we should be directing our collective voices and ask him to do MORE than just “talking points” that are nothing more than that. He has some responsibility AND a STAKE as a Veteran himself.

      Has anyone seen Senator McCain working WITH Secretary McDonald…I mean, really putting their minds to do more than put out a bad press brush fire??

      I respect him, but expect more as well because he IS in a position of power and influence and should be more of a true advocate for Veterans, especially when the one’s in his State are being killed and treated unacceptably.

  5. This is a good case of pissing in the wind. The VA is simply not for Veterans. Suicide ? how many veterans have relished the thought of checking out but due to a small amount of clear thoughts decline the permanent solution to a temporary problem. Politicians are a joke even the top three VA guys have their hands tied.
    90 % of VA employees are anti veterans. until we individually get together from where ever we are we can do much

  6. Is it possible to take individual VA physicians, or the VA for that matter, to court for instances of malpractice? Is there any case law that could punch a hole in the shield laws that the VA so greatly enjoys?

    1. ANY federal employee can be sued for not doing their job and the government cannot represent them. They have to get their own legal council.

  7. I think the VA just looks for ways to depress veterans.. They just wait for vets to die, so they do not have to.. They do many things to put veterans in a depressed state intentionally! Why are there still 22 suicides a day in the veterans community?..
    Some underlying reason for this, maybe improper treatment with Psychoactive drugs, experience talking here!!

    1. Ron, it has been my theory for years that the VA benefits by our death; therefore, the lack of care given is a sign of this. Treatment is delayed, misdiagnosed etc to contribute to our death rate. I am fully aware that this sounds paranoid but if one looks at all the actions of the VA from denying claims and responsibility for Agent Orange Gulf War syndrome etc, to delayed appointments, lack of medical staff, the rate of misdiagnosis, etc I think it is plausible to assume there is a concerted plan in the works. Think about it! We receive our health care from an agency that benefits from our death. Think about how the US government just walked away from over 2,000 POWs/MIAs from the Vietnam war because they did not want to pay the billions in reparations to the Vietnamese government. From my view, the government is either guilty of depraved disregard or an organized plan.

      1. You’re not paranoid if they’re really after you…I’m fighting to get a closer appt now…I call and they don’t return my call…Can you sue the VA for malpractice in this case?

    2. These are from my records dated May 9, 2014.
      Capsule study done 5/5/2014 showed:
      – Punctate apthous ulceration and erosions
      – Mid-small bowel edema and stricture vs mass lesion with active oozing that was easily passed by capsule
      – Several diaphragm strictures that were easily passed by capsule throughout the small bowel

      DDx: small bowel Crohns disease, ulcerative jejunitis, NSAID enteropathy, GIST. Malignancy (lymphoma, adenocarcinoma) less likely given the 2 year span of symptoms.

      I am still waiting to try and get something done with this. I can’t obtain a job because of the pain and the problems this has caused in my life. Note the “active oozing” part in which I was told by this Dr. that she could clearly see blood oozing into my small bowel. The result, nothing, not a thing. I am finally getting seen almost a year later and many complaints later. Having to deal with on a daily basis has caused me to become so depressed and my psychologist has now changed my diagnosis to “adjustment disorder”. I guess my problem has made me not able to adjust. I guess I should be able to adjust to having this problem and accept it. After reading the previous blog about the Hep C problems and knowing I have been scoped four times in the last two years makes me more depressed as I have had symptoms that I don’t know what they are and some of them resemble this. It is unnerving and I can easily see how vets take their own lives. The VA is not a vet friendly place but a place for us to go to die.

  8. These snippets from timeline at Phoenix VA state it all:

    “[The letter says Fobke struggled to schedule doctor visits, and Spencer repeatedly wound up in the emergency room at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center because no appointment slots were open.

    In 2011, Fobke said, the colon problems became so agonizing that Spencer tried to walk into a VA pain clinic but was sent home because he didn’t have a referral from his primary-care doctor. “He was curled up in the fetal position in the backyard,” she recalled, “and he had a gun with him.]”

    “[Early 2012: Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a Department of Veterans Affairs emergency-room physician, warns Sharon Helman, incoming director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, that the Phoenix ER is overwhelmed and dangerous. Mitchell now alleges she was told within days by senior administrators that she had deficient communication skills and was transferred out of the ER.]”

    This lawsuit should yet AGAIN totally pull-in the facts of the now-well-known horrific problems at the Phoenix VA and the whole VA Health System.
    Sharon Helman’s dastardly ‘footprint’ and the VA’s problems are written ALL OVER THIS…and Helman has the audacity to sue to get HER job back, nevermind the lives that NEVER can be reinstated!

    I fully think THE VA has “…deficient communication skills…”, as Sharon Helman’s retaliation against aforementioned Whistleblower states and think this should be yet another box of nails on she and all involved with this travesty.

    This lawsuit should be demanding SO MUCH MORE, especially since first wrongful claim regarding this was flatly denied by the VA.

    When you live with a terminal illness of any kind, it SHOULD be part of the treatment plan to have integrated Psych care and Cognitive Therapy. That’s what my civilian healthcare doctors do because suicidal ideation is one of those things that even if you NEVER EVER would think YOU would think that way…when you are given an extended and often, estimated “death prognosis with estimated timeline”, it is ONLY *Human* to have ALL OPTIONS running through one’s mind…and from all I have read, NOT ONCE has Psych Care been mentioned with regard to now-deceased Mr. Spencer.
    Cancer treatment has come a LONG WAY…in the civilian sector. I wonder why Mr. Spencer’s VA Dr. did not immediately ask for a separate VA Dr.’s eyes on his findings BEFORE basically telling Mr. Spencer to just go home and get your affairs together and prepare to die? This is again, how ANY private sector medical would have handled this, not relying on just one Dr.’s opinion.
    Aside from that, they punctured his lung. Clearly an Undeniable Error–CUE!

    Yes, I think the VA is completely accountable and although the VA did not physically “pull the trigger”, they did set-off a chain of events with the trigger of an egregious Dr.’s tongue…and Sharon Helman and others whom were in charge then should be held personally responsible for malpractice.

    WHY would an in chronic pain patient have to wade through even MORE VA Red Tape to acquire pain RX’s when it was clear he was being treated and WAS in pain, never mind the pain from the radiation therapy, gut issues, et al. To be given the ‘Round Robin” of denying pain RX’s because he did not have a “referral from his PCP”…well, that has SO MUCH wrong with it that any sane person, judge, jury, and court should clearly see this as nothing less than egregious negligence.

  9. My regrets go out to his family left behind. Thanks for his service to USA!
    One has to just ponder if the VA calling the day AFTER was only the VA trying to diminish their ‘liabilities’ by making it look like the VA was ‘taking the righteous path’, when WE ALL KNOW the VA is *never* that quick to call/contact ANYONE unless it’s submitting a bill to outside insurance! Sad, but true~!

    I say his widow/survivors should make a landmark case against the VA with this for malpractice and out of Principle to clean this mess called the VA up!
    This is why the VA should be following CLOSELY the way Cancer Centers of America treat all forms of this disease, rather than the “Disney Model”, which Jim Henson of Muppets Fame met, with Disney’s only caring about the bottom line, not his health, letting him die as well.
    Cancer Centers of America treat “Body, Mind, & Soul”–it’s a complete holistic package.

    Nowhere in this story is there tale of the VA sending this Vet to consult with a VA Psych when literally just given an erroneous death sentence to only be called day after his demise to say, WHOOPS, we have GREAT NEWS…WE WERE WRONG…*after* his wife had already informed the VA of his death…that right there shows how messed-up basic ‘Communication’ is at the VA. ONE LOOK in his electronic file should have shown his wife’s new revelation about his death. Private sector would have had that IMMEDIATELY in a person’s medical file when it came directly from a Spouse/Survivor.

    I say the VA was trying to cover their arses…and badly at that, by calling day after.
    Anyone else get the same vibe from this? Here we are again, BACK to the Phoenix VA…this place should be where we send terrorists instead of Cuba. Death seems to be the one thing they got down unfortunately.

    Shame on you VA….this law suit will be about Principle rather than focal on cash…VET LIVES MATTER! Where’s the outrage from Americans? Has this been in Main Stream Media…Nationally? I have not seen it…yet. This should be on every channel!

    Was Sharon Helman (sp?) overseeing that location at that time as well?

    1. I Completely agree. It sounds to me like after his wife called the VA to inform them of his suicide they started to look at his medical record in respect to the misdiagnoses of cancer which caused him to take his life. Then quickly noticed that it wasn’t cancer at all. Something I believe they could have known the last day he was seen there, since there were no further test or doctors seen to contradict that diagnosis. Meaning they already had the means and ability to correct that error, but didn’t bother to look at it until she called to them he had taken his life. If she would have never called to inform the VA of this, I’m almost certain that doctor would have not reevaluated the diagnosis and called to say, “oh, we have great news, we made a mistake.” As an effort to try and soften the blow, making them look like they cared enough to take a second look. They should be totally held responsible for this mans death. There are so many people who take their own lives when told they have cancer with a limited time to live, because everyone knows how much more pain is to come on those final days. If he was already in an enormous amount of pain already, I can imagine how he was thinking about how much more pain was to come towards the end. If you are going to tell someone that they are going to die soon, especially due to cancer, you better be 100% sure of that diagnosis. I go to the Phoenix VA for treatment and have had a couple of bad experiences there. Being a 100% Disabled Veteran, wheelchair bound with numerous medical conditions I cringe when I have to go there for treatment. Although, a lot of the nurses, volunteers and doctors are very good there, they do have a handful that need to definitely need to be weeded out. They make the others look bad, and that must make for horrible work conditions. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those dealing with medical issues not being taken care of.

  10. I do believe that God will be quenching his anger soon. I know he does not want us veterans to take deadly actions. So, VA. We know you are monitoring us, so listen up. God’s anger is great and his wrath is powerful. He can hardly contain himself. Anyone who hurts those he loves, will suffer. God loves righteous veterans.

    1. To Larry Ross,
      Everything you need to know about filing an HCV claim can be found at In short all you need is one or more Nexus letters saying you have
      “near constant debilitating episodes…..”. You can find Nexus letter examples there.
      There is a search window above the asknod book that makes it easy to find all you need to know about HCV claims. Don’t give up, you will win.

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