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Wives fight for better care at Tucson VA

Posted at 5:11 PM, Apr 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-29 14:53:59-04

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A frustrating battle for some veterans' wives to get the care their loved ones deserve in what they call a broken VA system.

Our KGUN9 investigation into the Tucson VA revealed a severe staffing shortage that's led to long wait times and poor care for some veterans. Three wives of veterans shared their experiences fighting for the care their husband's deserve and the guarantee they got from the U-S Government to take care of them for the rest of their lives.

MORE: Tucson VA Investigation: How severe is the staffing shortage?

They are their husband's voices willing to step into the battlefield and speak up for better care at the Tucson VA. They are the wives of veterans.

Tressa Sawyer is married to Craig "Sawman" Sawyer,  a former Navy Seal, once part of the elite Seal Team Six depicted in the film Zero Dark Thirty and also a Marine sniper.

The perils of war took a toll on the veteran, who Mrs. Sawyer said now suffers a chronic lung condition from inhaling toxins during the Gulf War. “Craig coughs constantly and it gets worse every year and it's hard to hear him struggle to breath,” she said.

MORE: "It was total chaos" Family describes veteran's last months in Tucson VA

Several months ago a new problem developed. A private doctor told him his small intestine twisted and filled with fluid and his constant coughs were tearing the insides. That doctor said he needed surgery within 10 days or he could go septic, a life-threatening condition.

But a VA ER doctor insisted he had a hernia.

“We were basically told, here's medication, we don't know when we can operate on you. You're not an emergency. It's a very small eguinal hernia. It's common. You're not going to die. It's not going to kill you,” she said.

She didn't believe that. her husband was in excruciating pain and his stomach was inflamed “It got to the point where I started crying and begging, begging the doctor and attending nurse, please admit my husband,” she said.

MORE: Whistleblowers explain how Tucson VA gamed the system

Her impassioned pleas had no effect. So she set out n a mission, with a growing set of medical documents, to appeal her husband's case to VA staff. But she said the more she pushed “tables turned and you're instantly treated hostile. You're in a hostile environment the minute you start asking real questions. That for me was the most maddening part,” said Mrs. Sawyer. “We have children. I don't want to lose my husband at an early age. Of all the horrible scary dangerous things he's done for this country. If my husband dies from something like this, I would feel he got cheated.”

It took three months  of constant calls and visits to get to the right person, a surgery scheduler, who finally got the ball rolling.

MORE: Staffing Crisis: Is Tucson VA on Washington's radar?

Valerie Cavazos asked her, “Without your effort?” She answered. “Nothing would have happened. He probably wouldn't have had his surgery to this day.”

Tressa Sawyer's not alone in advocating for her husband. Christine Weatherl's story is no different. Her husband Irvin "Von" Weatherl, a Vietnam Air Force veteran, is in the VA hospital on a ventilator 24/7 unable to communicate.

Since he has no voice, she stays by his side. “He's never been alone. I stay home for a few hours during the day,” said Mrs. Weatherl. And constantly present, she said she's caught serious gaps in her husband's care because of a high turnover of doctors and staff at the Tucson VA.

For example, when a nurse recently entered her husband's room. “I woke up to hear the nurse saying, Oh you're doing fantastic Mr. Fields. Well obviously my husband's name to start with is not Mr. Fields and my husband was not doing fantastic. I took one look and I knew immediately there was something wrong,” she said.

MORE: Tucson VA: Inspector General now in Tucson to investigate

His hospital clothes had been drenched  with sweat. She called for his doctor and when he arrived she told him “there's something terribly wrong with my husband, he took one look at him and said he has an infection,” she said. It was the onset of pneumonia.

Her continual presence may be a godsend to her husband, but it's not always well received by some staff. “You have one nurse thanking me and you have the next nurse will act like what is she doing tell me how to do my job. But I mean, I'm very tuned in to my husband's care so I'm actually able to be helpful.” To be a constant advocate. “I'm very fearful for the veterans that don't have that.”

MORE: Insider: Mass exodus of acute care doctors at Tucson VA

A veteran's suffering is often a family affair. And wives, like Ginny Wagner, say the bond is critical. Her husband, Ed Wagner, suffers from PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, from his experiences in the Vietnam War. Coupled with pain from serious health conditions, the combination has been too much too bear, to the point, he's contemplated suicide. “I think if he didn't have family. He wouldn't be here today. There were many days he would have just ended it,” she said tearfully. “I try to be strong. And not think about that part and not focus on it. But try to help him when he needs help talking to his doctors and saying he needs extra help. He's struggling.”

But she says a shortage of psychologists to help ease her husband's pain, mentally and emotionally, is a concern. “They're overloaded, they don't have enough time to focus or spend the time on the issue or the veteran. They have to move on to the next patient,” said Mrs. Wagner.

Cavazos asked, “And things could be overlooked?” She answered, “Oh Absolutely.” So Ginny makes sure they're not.

MORE: Tucson VA whistleblowers skeptical of fed investigation

And these wives hope for the day when they feel their voices are no longer needed to fight for better care.
Since we began our 9OYS investigation, U-S senators McCain and Flake, along with U-S Representative Grijalva have all called for yet another investigation of the Tucson VA. The Office of Inspector General agreed and that investigation is underway leading with the severe doctor shortage, intentional scheduling delays, and whistleblower retaliation.

We will continue to follow this story to ensure that ALL of our veterans get the care they need, fulfilling the obligation the U-S government made with them years and decades ago.