VA patients in lawsuit speak out

January 17, 2019 GMT

Deborah Rogers once lived an active life.

A former military police officer in the Army, she was a scout leader who led camping trips with her son.

Now, she can’t walk and needs help with simple tasks such as moving groceries from her car to her home. The 42-year-old Kokomo resident can’t work, and her life has been turned upside down.

It’s all because of a botched surgical procedure conducted a few years ago on her foot at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fort Wayne, Rogers said.

“The surgery was supposed to alleviate pain, and now I’m in a wheelchair for life,” she said Wednesday.

Rogers is one of 13 people suing the U.S. government, alleging they were injured by a podiatrist in incidents from 2009 to 2016 at the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System facility in Fort Wayne and one in Marion. Dr. Bradley R. Hammersley botched surgeries and performed medical procedures that were unnecessary, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne.

Hammersley said Wednesday he learned about the allegations from The Journal Gazette and would not comment on them because he had not been able to review specific claims. 

“This stuff has completely blindsided me,” he said. “I feel sorry those people feel they have been injured and that they feel that I was the cause of it, but : I don’t know.”

VA Northern Indiana Health Care System spokesman Tom Blackburn said Hammersley : who was hired in 2006 as a fee-based provider and became a full-time VA employee eight years later : was terminated in May 2017 after an internal review of all surgical podiatry cases he performed.

Hammersley said he was terminated because he suffered a stroke in 2016 and could not perform his duties. His medical license remains active, and an online state database of malpractice claims shows none against him.

He would not say whether he currently works in the medical field but said he has not been contacted by government officials regarding the allegations.

Though the lawsuit seeking unspecified damages including attorney fees was filed Friday, federal officials were aware of malpractice claims since at least Feb. 28.

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, sent a letter that day to Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael J. Missal asking for a report on a VA investigation into improper care. The letter references “415 cases involving this practitioner” and says, “To date, 44 veterans have been identified as negatively impacted by this practitioner.”

Internal government documents say 115 veterans might have been harmed by Hammersley and indicate VA officials worked to remove the chief of surgery from a leadership role.

Banks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the situation “troubling and completely unacceptable.”

“Indiana veterans deserve the best care possible, with no exceptions,” he said in a statement. “While reforms and actions have been made within the VA to prevent a similar circumstance, much more is required. Vigilance and rigorous oversight must be at the core of the VA’s mission to serve our nation’s veterans.”

The VA found “that a small percentage of Dr. Hammersley’s patients received substandard care,” Blackburn said.

“VANIHCS leaders have contacted all affected veterans to apologize personally, offer additional medical care and inform them of their options moving forward,” Blackburn said in an email.

But those who say they suffered permanent, life-altering injuries argue efforts by the VA to reach out to them are not enough and hope the lawsuit brings them compensation to pay for lingering medical and other problems.

Rogers, who left the Army in 1996, said Hammersley improperly inserted screws into her left foot. The doctor also wanted to operate on her right foot, she said, but a different physician later told her that was unnecessary.

“When I got out of the military, I wanted to do police work,” Rogers said. “I can’t do that, obviously. My whole job line was destroyed.”

The claims are echoed in court filings and statements from other alleged victims.

Carisa Snyder suffered an “accidental severing” of a tendon, according to court documents. Ephraim Shields of Fort Wayne reported he underwent an unnecessary surgery.

Jerry Kittle, a 69-year-old Army veteran who lives in Huntertown, said he endured at least four operations on a foot Hammersley said was broken.

The doctor later removed healthy cartilage Hammersley said was missing from an ankle and Hammersley “just threw up his hands” and gave up when asked what could be done about recurring problems with the foot, Kittle said.

The Vietnam veteran now has trouble walking and recently had to give up a job he enjoyed because it required he be on his feet most of the day.

“I can walk on it, but I walk with a limp,” Kittle said Wednesday. “When the weather changes, it hurts like hell.”

Attorney David Farnbauch is representing Kittle, Rogers and the 11 others named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said more could be added to the lawsuit, and his office has fielded calls from at least three other former patients of Hammersley.

“What makes this case unusual would just be the scale of the malpractice,” Farnbauch said. “There’s probably a lot more Dr. Hammersley surgery victims out there.”

The lawsuit, which includes more than 100 pages of documents detailing the alleged malpractice, states government officials admitted the doctor’s mistakes but denied claims from victims for disability benefits because they were not filed within a two-year statute of limitations.

The government has not responded to the lawsuit, court records show.