Veterans Affairs investigators probing allegations of mistreatment of a blind, diabetic veteran during a lengthy wait at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center are reviewing text message excerpts and photos from a witness’s smartphone because surveillance camera footage has been erased.
At the request of a VA inspector general’s team, Dee Redwine, who escorted Navy veteran Sandi Niccum to the medical center on Oct. 22 and Oct. 24, mailed VA investigators excerpts last week of text messages she sent to Niccum’s aide, Shirley Newsham.
A Review-Journal story about Niccum’s ordeal posted Nov. 27 and a related one Dec. 3 about long waits and bad attitudes among staff at local VA health care facilities prompted calls and emails from dozens of veterans who had similar experiences at clinics and the emergency room of the $1 billion center that opened in 2012.
Redwine had kept the messages on her iPhone along with photos of Niccum, 78, slumped in a wheelchair next to empty chairs in the waiting room on Oct. 22.
The text messages and photos became more significant to the inspector general’s probe after Isabel Duff, director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, revealed on Dec. 20 that digital surveillance video wanted by the House Veterans Affairs Committee had been automatically deleted.
“Everything is hell here w her. She wants to leave,” Redwine wrote in a text message to Newsham at 5:22 p.m., about two hours after Niccum and Redwine arrived at the hospital on Oct. 22. Forty minutes later, she writes, “Her sugar is 64 by their Rn. They do not care.”
Newsham replied: “I don’t understand them at all. They piss me off.”
A blood sugar reading of 64 milligrams per deciliter is considered dangerous, especially for a brittle diabetic like Niccum was. A reading of 70-130 is normal, but a reading of 30 can bring unconsciousness and seizures.
Redwine used the messages to write a chronology of their emergency room experience at Niccum’s request for publication in the Review-Journal “so this won’t happen to someone else,” Redwine quoted Niccum as saying.
Niccum died Nov. 15 at a local hospice after a bout with a colon disorder. She had racked up 5,000 volunteer service hours helping veterans and staff at VA facilities.
Local VA officials have questioned the accuracy of the chronology, but Redwine has said she was certain the video surveillance footage would validate it.
VA spokesman Richard Beam said in an email Friday that the video recordings weren’t purposely deleted, instead they were “overwritten” because of an “industry standard” design.
“Our system is a digital system and records for a predetermined amount of time before the capacity is reached. Once it is at capacity, it overwrites the old data with new,” he said.
Duff, who has been in charge of the medical center and satellite clinics since September, has said Niccum’s complicated “work-up” began 30 minutes after Redwine wheeled Niccum into the emergency care waiting room on the hospital’s first floor.
But Redwine’s text messages contradict Duff’s claim. Instead, blood samples weren’t drawn until about 7:18 p.m., about four hours after Niccum and Redwine arrived at the hospital campus and three hours after they entered the emergency care waiting room, according to Redwine’s time-dated text messages.
“They just drew blood and EKG. Back in waiting room,” reads Redwine’s message to Newsham at 7:18 p.m.
In his email Friday, Beam addressed the discrepancy, saying, “We have reviewed Ms. Niccum’s medical treatment records for Oct. 22 and find there her clinical care was appropriate for her level of acuity.”
Beam said Niccum was triaged for the level of care she needed. “Any perceived delay in care was due to other patients needing more emergent attention.”
Niccum went to the VA Medical Center on Oct. 22 in excruciating pain from what private doctors at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson diagnosed on Oct. 25 as a ruptured abscessed colon and a large, unspecified mass on the right side of her abdomen. They never told Redwine whether the mass was a tumor, tissue or fluid.
Redwine tried to send a text message to Niccum’s private nurse, Susan Fowler, at 3:55 p.m. — about 15 minutes after their first stop, the center’s radiology lab, for a scan and chest X-ray. Niccum’s primary care physician from a VA women’s clinic had told them to go there first for tests.
“They have no orders. Please call and help,” Redwine typed in the text to Fowler. The message was marked, “Not Delivered,” a common problem for sending messages from parts of the six-story, 1 million-square-foot building on the Las Vegas Valley’s northern edge.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a late November statement that the committee “is investigating these disturbing allegations, and we will be asking the VA to provide copies of all applicable surveillance camera footage so we can examine the sequence of events in detail.”
Problems with lapses in care have been found at VA medical facilities across the country, Miller said in a news release Friday. The media advisory says he will conduct congressional oversight visits today at VA medical centers in Augusta, Ga., and Columbia, S.C., where at least nine preventable veteran deaths have been linked to delays in medical care at those hospitals.
On Dec. 12, the day of a memorial service for Niccum at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, Miller released a letter he sent to VA Inspector General George Opfer calling for an investigation into Niccum’s experience at the VA Medical Center.
She “was made to wait six hours for emergency care and was repeatedly disrespected and mistreated by staff at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center,” read the letter Miller signed.
On Friday, Redwine stressed the importance of having a text-message archive to document Niccum’s visits to the VA Medical Center when the emergency room’s surveillance video was erased without storing it on a DVD or backup system.
She said despite the VA officials’ assertion that Niccum’s clinical care was appropriate for her level of acuity, Niccum’s stress and pain was so severe that it caused her to have a diabetic reaction.
Redwine said the video would “absolutely” have shown “the lack of compassion and care. We just sat there for hours with no communication from the staff.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.