Rima Nelson, director of the VA Medical Center in St. Louis.
John Cochran VA Medical Center
By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter
St. Louis, MO (KSDK) - It is being called a national disgrace. The surgery center at the Veteran's Medical Center in St. Louis remained closed for a sixth consecutive day due to unresolved contamination issues.
For the past month, the I-Team had been investigating a long list of problems at the facility when we discovered the latest sterilization problems last week. Recently, medical professionals put their jobs on the line to shine a light on what they claim humiliates, neglects, and endangers the lives of veterans.
This investigation is not about the doctors and nurses at the facility, but rather it is a culture that appears to be more interested in protecting itself instead of serving its veterans.
According to a Veterans Health Administration report, The St. Louis VA Medical Center ranks dead last in terms of patient satisfaction among all VA facilities in the nation.
Wes Gordon, an Air Force veteran who served in Desert Storm, is a nurse at John Cochran Medical Center.
"It should make everyone sick," he said.
Based on what Gordon has seen, he believes veterans are at risk.
"I know they're in danger. I don't think they're in danger. The problem is the culture makes it so," he said.
Gordon says the dental clinic's sterilization problems that exposed 1,800 veterans to HIV and hepatitis was just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the I-Team exposed more contamination that forced the shutdown of the facility's surgical center.
Glenda Skinner, a veteran herself, with two children on active duty, is also a nurse at Cochran.
"When I look at these people I see my own family. These people have done so much for our country. They do not deserve to lie in stool for hours. They do not deserve to be mistreated," Skinner said. "It is a disgrace. It is an absolute disgrace."
Staffing they said is so bad veterans can sit in soiled linens for days. One recent incident involved a Medal of Honor recipient, the highest military decoration awarded.
"He's sitting in his own stool, his own feces. If that doesn't break your heart, I don't know what will in this life," Gordon said.
Skinner and Gordon detailed how the process within Cochran is so broken even simple tasks like supplying applesauce can't get done. Gordon says the wait is not in hours or days, but years.
"It took me two years and three months to get applesauce for the patients that can swallow their pills," he said.
After years of complaining and nothing changing, the nurses recently detailed problems to federal investigators and congressional leaders.
"It is a national disgrace when veterans are put at risk. It is not okay," said Rep. Russ Carnahan. "People who are responsible need to be held accountable."
Last month, Congressmen Carnahan and Bob Filner of California toured Cochran to address a litany of complaints. After the Congressmen and TV cameras left, a spokesperson for Cochran issued a statement saying administrators have known about the complaints and had taken strong action to replace broken equipment and restock shelves.
But recently, the I-Team was sent several photos of more soiled linen, near empty shelves, and broken or missing equipment, inside patient rooms.
"Sometimes a bureaucracy gets to a point where protects itself against the very people it was built to serve," Gordon said.
Carnahan expects the two federal investigations to be completed by mid-spring.
"There is a problem at Cochran. They are dead last in the nation. They don't have the right staffing. They don't have the right supplies, and probably the biggest issue is the culture there," he said.
In the meantime, Carnahan has set up a form on his website where people who have concerns or questions can contact his office and sign up to get updates on the status of the investigation.
Since mid-January, the I-Team has requested an interview with the medical center's director, Rima Nelson. She finally agreed to an interview Monday night.
Nelson has been at Cochran 14 months and takes great exception to the label, "national disgrace."
"Every veteran watching should know and feel assured that the care we deliver here when we deliver it is of the highest quality," she said.
"And going back to the operating room, we shut things down as soon as we could not assure them of that. And, we will not re-open the OR until we know that the care they are going to receive is safe and of the highest quality. I am very proud to work here and I wouldn't work anywhere else. And if I could I would receive my care here too."
This Thursday, Rep. Carnahan will meet with Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to discuss ongoing problems at the Cochran VA Center.
On Monday, Republican Congressman Todd Akin wrote a scathing letter to Secretary Shinseki.
"Unless there is a serious, public reform of the St. Louis VAMC, including holding senior staff accountable, I cannot in good conscience seek additional funding and support expanded programs at a VA medical center that does not perform its current mission," Akin said. "You are telling the veterans of the greater St. Louis area that everything is under control, when they know full well that is not the case."
The Saint Louis VA budget this year is $407 million.
Here are contacts for the Missouri and Illinois Congressional delegation.
Sen. Claire McCaskill
Phone: 314-367-1364 - St. Louis Office
Sen. Roy Blunt
Phone: 314-725-4484 - St. Louis Office
Rep. William Lacy Clay-1st District
Phone: 314-367-1970 - City Office
Phone: 314-383-5240 - County Office
Rep. Todd Akin-2nd District
Rep. Russ Carnahan-3rd District
Phone: 314-962-1523-St. Louis Office
Phone: 636-937-8039-Jefferson County Office
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson-8th District
Phone: 573-756-9755 - Farmington office
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer-9th District
Phone: 636-239-2276 - Washington, MO Office
Sen. Richard Durbin
Phone: 618-351-1122 - Carbondale Office
Rep. John Shimkus-19th District
Phone: 618-344-3065 - Collinsville Office
Rep. Jerry Costello-12th District
Phone: 618-397-8833 - East St. Louis Office
Phone: 618-451-7065 - Granite City Office