By Carol Cole-Frowe
Transcript Staff Writer
The state is launching an investigation into allegations leveled at the Norman Veterans Center by several veterans and their families.
The veterans allege there has been a lack of care in several instances because of understaffing, improper health procedures and systematic intimidation to keep them from filing grievances or complaints.
State Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, said at a meeting at the Capitol with one of the family members and two area legislators Wednesday, Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs Norman Lamb told them an independent investigator from the state’s Merit Protection Commission will examine their complaints. The VA secretary told them the investigator would be named within the week.
According to minutes of the meeting, Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Phillip Driskill said the investigator will be from outside the system and will include talking to people who left employment at the center within the last six months. The legislators will be given copies of the report.
“They are going to go in and look at the whole system,” Lindley said, adding he had heard from enough veterans to know problems are not isolated.
State Rep. Wallace Collins, D-Norman, made arrangements for the meeting with Driskill; Lindley; Susan Simmons, sister of Norman Veterans Center resident Mike Simmons; and James Shearer, former brother-in-law of Mike Simmons. Lamb attended the meeting at the request of Gov. Brad Henry.
“There’s so much smoke that there’s got to be some fire there,” Collins said.
Norman Veterans Center administrator Bob Weeks was in attendance, but was asked to leave the meeting to allow the family member to air her grievances. Weeks has been in charge for about three years of the 300-bed Norman Veterans Center, which remains at capacity often with a waiting list.
Susan Simmons, a registered nurse for 33 years, detailed problems to the group, which met for about two-and-a-half hours.
She said injuries at the center are way beyond the occasional accident.
Simmons said one incident occurred when her brother Mike, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran and decorated Marine who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was left to lie in his own feces for 59 minutes. She was on the phone with him much of that time and said she heard his continued polite requests of staff to clean him up.
Some of the feces had dried by that time and they scrubbed his skin to get it off, leaving it “as raw as hamburger.”
“It looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to him,” she said, when she observed the injury later. “It’s disgusting.”
She was later told by Weeks that the delay occurred because one of the aides was on break and unavailable to help, which she disputes is possible because aides at state agencies aren’t allowed to have hour breaks, with a half-hour allowed for meals and 15 minutes for a regular break.
Simmons said her brother, who has lived at the center for four years, had suffered numerous injuries because of inexperienced staff who aren’t trained sufficiently by the experienced staff.
One of those injuries occurred when an inexperienced aide was using a lift to move Mike from his wheelchair to his bed, “shearing” his buttocks and leaving them raw.
“And Mike has had this done to him repeatedly,” she said of the shearing.
She said staff gossips about the patients, which has created a prejudice against her brother.
Susan Simmons said she requested her brother’s nursing records in April, which she has yet to receive. She believes that’s because there are improper notes in his file about her brother.
When Mike Simmons’ art supplies disappeared from the activities room, he was told by Weeks that they wouldn’t be replaced because it was against rules and would be unfair to other veterans. Weeks said he couldn’t make an exception.
Mike filed a complaint and when the art supplies were later replaced by the center, Mike refused them because he had been told it was against the rules.
Lindley said he had known and respected Mike Simmons for years, from when Simmons had the successful advertising and marketing agency Marcom. He said Simmons had lost his business and his home because of his illness, but had not lost his smarts.
Susan Simmons said ironically Mike used his marketing skills to help promote the center, including helping facilitate Hollywood actor James Garner’s visit to the center in 2006.
Veteran Bruce Goodin has lived in the Norman Veterans Center for seven years and has similar stories to tell of being injured by inexperienced aides.
The 56-year-old Vietnam veteran, who also has multiple sclerosis, said he’s suffering from an infected ankle because of an incorrect move on a lift by an inexperienced aide. He said the aide ran the back of his leg into the bed and when he went into spasms, his foot got caught behind the rail and twisted and skinned the ankle.
“My God, his foot swelled up the size of a football,” said his brother Ray Goodin. “His foot is so swollen it looks like it’s going to explode. If it wasn’t this bad, I wouldn’t just make this up.”
Bruce said many times when the aides come in, they already have gloves on from the previous patient, which spreads infection.
He said one time an aide put fresh sheets on his bed and the sheets had feces on them because the aide had not changed to new gloves first as required.
“You have to be careful because our immune systems are compromised,” Bruce Goodin said.
And Ray Goodin said three veterans were crowded for months in the next room, only designed for two men.
Bruce Goodin said he had seen more staff fired and leaving the facility in the last two years when Weeks was administrator, than in the first five years he was there.
“The staff seems overworked,” said Bruce Goodin. “They are tired all the time.”
He said they used to have lots of volunteers.
“Now we have zero,” Goodin said.
“(Weeks) has the people intimidated around here and afraid to say anything,” said Ray Goodin.
Bruce Goodin said he was on the F-1 wing for seven years and it took a year for him to get a private room on the wing. He was moved abruptly, given two days notice.
“I was told when I first got here to think of the Veterans Center as my home,” he said. “The worst thing about it was the way it all came down.”
Bruce Goodin said Weeks “came slamming into my room.”
“(Weeks) stood over me and told me that he only had to give me 48 hours notice to vacate this room,” Goodin said, with Weeks telling him “the right side of the unit was too heavy” because he and Simmons lived there. “And he threw down a piece of paper.”
Goodin said his wing is continually short-staffed, using only one nurse and one aide on a side with 25 patients.
“What you’ve got is a real bad situation with bad morale,” he said. “And (staff) calls in sick a lot.”
Goodin said in the center’s Alzheimer’s unit, veterans have had to be transported to the hospital because of dehydration.
“There is no excuse for them to be dehydrated,” he said.
Bruce Goodin said he no longer is intimidated on speaking out about what he sees going on around him.
“But the walls have ears,” he said. “And there is lots and lots of nepotism. You have to be careful about what you say. We are afraid it will get worse before it gets better.”
Susan Simmons said her brother has high regard for most Veterans Center personnel, and only complains about inexperienced aides who have hurt him. That’s gotten him labeled as a “bad patient.”
But she said that’s because her brother and Goodin are still intelligent, despite their illnesses.
“They can tell the difference between good and bad care and they are going to voice their complaints … so they label them ‘bad patients,’” Simmons said.
“(Weeks) is afraid he’d have to go up against two smart people instead of one,” Ray Goodin said. “They’re paralyzed, but their brains are intact.”
Susan Simmons said she met with a staff physician who demanded Mike thank the staff when he’s given good care.
“And she said when he cries out in pain and orders people out of his room, it’s his fault,” she said.
Susan Simmons said if her brother is a bad patient, the staff made him one.
“You can only jab a dog with a stick so many times … before he’s going to start to fight back,” she said of his lashing out verbally when he’s hurt.
Mike and Susan Simmons are concerned about potential reprisals for his speaking out, as are the Goodin family.
“I’m very concerned, and Mike is just stressing out,” Susan Simmons said. “He’s afraid he’s going to be told that his care is ‘no longer within their scope of care.’”
“I’m just one signature away from being thrown out of here,” Mike said.
Ray Goodin said he is praying for a new administrator.
“When my brother was getting hurt, I felt like my world was getting blown apart,” he said. “You’d better not dump on my brother.”
Mike Simmons said he believes things have to get better and that’s why he’s speaking out.
“Not just for me, but for all the veterans out here,” he said.
Other veterans and their families spoke to The Norman Transcript off the record, backing up the Simmons’ and Goodins’ allegations.
Lindley said problems with staffing won’t go away, with the “standstill budget” recently approved by the Legislature.
“It’s a dig-a-hole budget,” he said, noting that state agencies have had increases in fuel and food costs. “So where are you going to cut? … What are they going to do?”
Collins, who serves on the Legislature’s Veterans Committee, said it was ironic that the Legislature celebrates Veterans Day by having disabled veterans come to the Capitol to be honored.
“Then we don’t back it up with putting money in place to take care of the facilities that take care of them,” he said. “My main goal is to take care of the veterans.”
An attempt Friday afternoon to reach Driskill or Lamb was unsuccessful.
By Carol Cole-Frowe
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