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VA hospital accused of shocking mistreatment of blind veteran

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VA hospital accused of shocking mistreatment of blind veteran

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Dec 12, 2013

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Shocking mistreatment. That's what one veteran received at the VA Hospital, according to her caretakers and a federal lawmaker.

They all want answers. And they've asked Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears to tell this story to help ensure no other veteran goes through the same thing.

Taps rang out through the chapel on Wednesday, Dec. 12 as 78-year-old Navy veteran, mother and medic Sandra Niccum was laid to rest surrounded by friends and admirers.

"Sandi Niccum was a wonderful advocate for any veteran. She was outstanding with blinded veterans," said her neighbor, friend and caregiver, Dee Redwine.

Blind herself as a result of diabetes, Sandi dedicated more than 5,000 volunteer hours to the VA Southern Nevada Health System.

Her house is filled with photos and memories of a life of service. But her death, and the time leading up to it, is the story her caregiver and aide are bound to tell.

"And I told her, I said, 'Sandi, please, I don't want to tell this story.' And she said, 'Dee, you have to.'"

The Las Vegas Review Journal first published the story at Sandi's request.

"She wanted this article and this newscast because she did not want any other veteran to go through what she did," said her aide, Shirley Newsham.

Sandi's ordeal began in the late summer with a visit to the VA Hospital's emergency department for some tests.

"We got checked into ER and we waited at least four hours."

Shirley Newsham said Sandi, a "brittle diabetic," never went anywhere without her insulin kit. But Shirley said VA hospital staff told Sandi, "If you're not going to give up your medicines, then we're going to have to escort you out of the hospital."

Hospital Director Isabel Duff denies that. But she cautions, "Patients who take their own medication in an acute hospitalization, that's just not something that happens because it can interfere if we don't know. We could actually cause her great harm."

Sandi had to go back to the hospital on Oct. 22 for more tests as her health continued to decline.

Dee said the nightmare started all over again when radiology couldn't find Sandi's orders in the computer.

"The gentleman got up as Sandi was sitting there and he slammed the window down."

So it was back once again to the ER, where Dee said the nearly six-hour wait pushed Sandi over the edge.

"And that's when she would just hit her cane on the floor and say, 'Please, God, please, somebody help me. Please, some doctor, help me, help me.' No one even cared. No one even looked up. I just thought, wow."

Dee took pictures to document Sandi's state as she sat waiting in the VA's emergency department.

"This was so terrible. It was a nightmare. That's why I took the pictures on my iPhone, that this was really happening, and to her."

The VA admits it can improve on treating special needs patients.

Though patient privacy laws prevent them from talking about the specifics of Sandi's care, Isabel Duff said the veteran and her aides got it all wrong.

"Her chronology does not match what we have documented." 

"What about her constant pleas for help that they claim were ignored?" Darcy Spears asked.

"Well, what I can tell you is the documents, our notes show continued intervention and assistance and treatment, even ongoing, during a time that the ED was very, very busy and her evaluation was progressing," answered Duff.

She said Sandi misunderstood doctors' orders and refused care and offers of assistance that could have made her experience better.

"I can tell you that her care was appropriate. You've pointed out, and what I'm hearing, is that Sandi reported that she didn't feel that she was treated appropriately. We are looking at that."

Dina Titus and other members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee are also looking at Sandi's case.

Congresswoman Titus sent this statement saying:

"I was appalled to learn of the shocking mistreatment of a veteran who had given so much to our country and community. Our VA hospital should be the gold standard in both caring for patients and customer service. I spoke with Isabel Duff, Director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, about this issue, and am eager to learn the results of the hospital's working group and the actions they plan to take to ensure no other veteran suffers from a similar experience. As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I will take this issue to the highest levels if necessary so that our nation's heroes receive the best services possible."

Sandi died Nov. 15 from complications due to an earlier diagnosis of colon cancer.

Her suffering is over, but her story and her service will live on.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.