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Sunday, August 27, 2006

VA Issues: FAMILIES ALLEGE STATE VETERANS' HOME IN EL PASO, TEXAS NEGLECTS PATIENTS

"They treated me like dirt. I had no dignity."

El Paso Times
By Chris Roberts
August 27, 2006

James Pai lies in his hospital bed, his bone-thin body exposed for the video camera. Under his gown, he is clad only in a diaper. His arms and legs are covered with blood-red sores, and he urges the videographer, his lawyer, to get him out of the state veterans home where he has been placed.

Last month, Pai, a former U.S. Navy diver, was a resident at the Ambrosio Guillen State Veterans Home in Northeast El Paso. Now, he is in a foster care home, where he has regained the lost weight. At the age of 79, he is slowed by Parkinson's disease, but from a padded living room chair, dressed in comfortable street clothes, he watches television, reads the paper and carries on lucid conversations.

But his voice strains with emotion when he talks about treatment of the elderly and his time at Ambrosio Guillen, where he was wasting away.

"They treated me like dirt. I had no dignity," Pai said. "It hurt me deeply inside to think that my country---I served in the war, I'm a World War II veteran---I think they should take care of us."

Paul Moore, executive secretary of the Texas Veterans Land Board, was at the home Friday for a routine visit. He said the board takes all complaints seriously. The land board oversees the 160-bed home, which is operated by a private company. Requests to the company for information and interviews were all referred to the state.

"Their (veterans) care is of the utmost concern," Moore said. "We're aware of their sacrifice and they've given so much for their country, and we want to make sure they get the best care possible."

Ambrosio Guillen doesn't get any more complaints than the other five homes in the system, Moore said. When people are admitted, he said, it often is an emotional transition, and "we get complaints for every facility; it's just the nature of the beast."

Pai isn't the only one who has problems with the quality of care at Ambrosio Guillen.

Norma Mayo's husband, Jack, an Air Force veteran, was at the home in February when his health began to deteriorate. Instead of listening to her concerns and trying to help, she said, staff members at the home tried to bully her into signing a "do not resusitate order." She said she believes he was getting about half the oxygen he needed.

Mayo insisted that her husband be transferred to a hospital, where his condition stabilized, she said, providing what she considered a higher quality of life until he died about a week later.

"When my husband was in the veterans home, he could barely catch his breath," Mayo said. "He was terminal, but after 20 minutes (at the hospital where he was transferred), they had color back in his face and he was better."

The home is regulated by both Veterans Affairs and the state Department of Aging and Disability, Moore said. He said he tries to visit each home a couple of times each year. The board also sends nurses out to inspect facilities 3 or 4 times a month, he said, and some of those inspections are unannounced.

Moore said it isn't possible to discuss case detailes because of patient confidentiality, but he added that he had not heard about the Pai and Mayo cases. He said, however, that he expected to be informed when problems occur. Problems related to neglectful treatment at the home reported late last year, soon after it opened, have been taken care of and are no longer a concern, he said.

But Pai and Mayo both reported neglectful treatment. Pai's relatives and friends also said they received little or no cooperation from staff at the veterans home.

Pai was removed from his foster care when an allegedly disgruntled caretaker made what the family called a false report that the foster home was taking advantage of him. Adult Protective Services intervened and eventually sent Pai to the Ambrosio Guillen home.

Mona Stevenson, Pai's niece, asked the foster home caretaker to check on her uncle, but he was refused access. The caretaker, Gilbert Pena, then called El Paso lawyer Terry Hammond. Hammond also was refused access after he and a psychiatrist visited and found Pai's living conditions to be unacceptable.

At that point, Hammond, who was hired by Stevenson, asked for and received a temporary restraining order preventing APS or veterans home staffers from interfering with family-approved visits or from moving Pai to another home. It was on one of those visits that Hammond made the recording of Pai, a video that is now part of a probate court record of the case.

And although Pai complains of neglect---he says he fell out of his bed numerous times, not receiving medical care until after Hammond and Cruz intervened---he says more sinister problems existed. He said a staffer would approach him and whisper in his ear, "I don't like Japs; I'm going to kill you."

"I was really afraid of him," said Pai, who is Korean-American. "He slapped me. They used profanity and racial epithets."

In a wry reply to his alleged persecutor, he notes that Japanese families take better care of their elderly. "Parents should be honored," he said. "They can't help it if they get old. Love them and give them the understanding and care they deserve."

Pai said he believes he would be dead now if he had stayed at the home, and Mayo said she believes her husband would have died at the home within hours if he hadn't been moved to the hospital.

"That's pretty serious when somebody feels that way. I'm going to look into this...to see if there's any truth to the allegations," Moore said. "Once those things get to us, everything is addressed. We leave nothing unhandled."

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