Family sues VA Puget Sound over slow response to skin cancer that killed Army veteran

Staff writerMay 21, 2014 

Connie Olberg got her late brother Cliff Douglass outdoors for a few hikes while she cared for him in the last months of his life.

COURTESY PHOTO

Week after week, Cliff Douglass saw the cancerous spot on his forehead swell until it hurt to the touch.

He had a biopsy from VA Puget Sound confirming it was melanoma and instructions to wait for his caregivers to connect him with a specialist at the University of Washington to remove the cancer.

They didn’t make the call. The cancer spread.

His family now is suing the VA, charging that the inaction of his care providers diminished his chances of beating the melanoma that caused his death in November 2012.

His sister, who cared for Douglass in his last days, is pressing the case in part because of reports she has heard from around the country of veterans dying while waiting for care at VA hospitals.

“This is not really about the money; it’s about other people dying,” said Connie Olberg of Sammamish.

VA whistleblowers in recent weeks have reported that as many as 40 VA patients died in Arizona while waiting for care at the medical center in Phoenix. At that hospital, VA staff allegedly covered up long wait times with misleading reports about patients’ requests for appointments.

That kind of false reporting has not been documented at the VA hospitals in Seattle or at American Lake, but they’re just as impacted by the pressures of dramatic growth since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

The VA paid out $5.9 million in wrongful death settlements between 2001 and 2011, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Four of the 14 VA Puget Sound cases documented by the center cited delays in treatment.

The News Tribune has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for more recent records.

The VA last year rejected Olberg’s initial claim after her brother’s death. Olberg filed the lawsuit in December with Tacoma attorney Jessica Holman Duthie in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington.

In court documents, the VA disputed Olberg’s claim. Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Gugin wrote that the case should be dismissed and that any negligence that contributed to Douglass’s death was not the fault of his caregivers at the VA.

Douglass grew up in Issaquah and served in the Army just after the Vietnam War. He came home to the Puget Sound and worked for Boeing as a machinist, but struggled with substance abuse for much of his working life.

Those problems came to a head and he lost his job at Boeing in the early 2000s. He got clean and became a mentor to others who struggled to end addictions, Olberg said.

She didn’t realize the extent of his impact on others until his funeral.

“Person after person after person talked about that,” she said. “He got beyond the formalities. That was who my brother was. He wasn’t a shallow person.”

Douglass’s medical records show he was diagnosed with melanoma in May 2011. At the time, he was receiving medication to help him recover from a liver transplant. 

Organ transplant recipients face an elevated risk of cancer, according to the National Institute of Health. His medication also could have made him more vulnerable to cancer, his family was told.

He was instructed to wait for the VA to arrange his surgery at the UW, and he grew frustrated as the weeks past with no appointment. In August 2011, Douglass made the call himself and arranged a surgery for the following month.

“I still wouldn’t be scheduled if I hadn’t called the university,” he vented to his VA doctor in an August 2011 visit, according to notes from his appointment.

During his surgery, doctors discovered the cancer had spread down his face and throughout his body.

He wasted away over the following year. A video taken two weeks before his death shows him struggling to eat and drink without spilling. 

Olberg felt her brother was robbed after working so hard to get healthy and sober.

“Here’s a man who fought so hard to overcome a tough situation in his life and he succeeded and then he gets liver cancer. Then he fought so hard to overcome that, and he succeeded. And he was helping people. He was such a good person,” Olberg said.

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