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Family Blames Dallas VA Hospital For Vet’s Death After Botched Surgery

(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Mireya Villarreal
A native Texan, Mireya was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley....
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DALLAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – Korean War Vet Gary Willingham went into the Dallas VA Hospital to have his thyroid removed and came out paralyzed, unable to eat or walk on his own.

Doctors thought Willingham had cancer somewhere in his throat, but they weren’t exactly sure where. After removing his tonsils, which were not the source of the cancer, they went back in to remove his thyroid.

The surgery left the 80-year-old Korean War veteran suffering from stroke-like conditions. He could only move one arm and his head and communicating was difficult. He was often forced to write notes to get people to understand what he needed or wanted.

“He lived the rest of his life with a feeding tube, defecating on himself, using a diaper. Every day for the next 370-some odd days he lost his dignity every day,” his daughter, Sydney Schoellman, told us.

A VA surgery report the I-Team got a hold of shows during that thyroid surgery doctors hit Gary Willingham’s jugular vein. His neck filled with blood, losing at least “…one liter in a short period of time”. His daughter, Sydney Schoellman, says she remembers exactly what the doctors said after the procedure.

“The field became muddied. So, we started clamping things off. And we realized, six minutes later, that we had clamped his carotid artery,” Schoellman said.

So, the day of Willingham’s surgery doctor’s told her six minutes. But the VA report Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal got a hold of, filed days after the surgery, tells a different story. Clamps were on the veteran’s veins, in his neck, for approximately 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes where blood and oxygen weren’t properly flowing to his brain.

“Fifteen is a death sentence,” Schoellman explained. “Fifteen is the loss of function on one side of your brain. And that’s what happened.”

“Did you feel like the VA had lied to you?” Villarreal asked.

“I knew they had,” Schoellman answered. “I mean, we trusted them. At one point we were thanking them. Thank you for saving his life!”

Schoellman says they finally got a copy of this report a few months after their father’s surgery. But by that time they had already based several decisions on the idea that he had only been deprived of blood and oxygen for six minutes.

“Not only had we put him through all those surgeries, we put him in a facility that he probably shouldn’t have been in. And we probably pushed him harder than he had to be,” Schoellman remembered.

We reached out to the VA hospital in Dallas, asking them for their side of the Willingham case. They refused to go on-camera and, instead, sent us a statement saying:

“We are saddened by the death of Mr. Willingham and our continued thoughts and prayers are with his family. We have maintained close contact with his daughter regarding her concerns and have also offered the resources VA has available to assist Veteran dependents and their survivors. At this time, VA cannot discuss the details of this case due to a pending claim.” – Erikka Neroes

Gary Willingham died on Christmas Eve 2011. His daughters have since filed a claim against the Dallas VA, blaming the hospital for their father’s death. But they say, what’s more important to them is making their father’s death meaningful. They are working with local legislators to improve the VA system. And they’ve also created a Facebook page, hoping to garner more support for change.

Since filing their claim against the VA a monetary offer has been sent to Gary Willingham’s family. However the family is still discussing whether they will take the offer.

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