Another Family Blames Veterans Home For Loved One's Death
By Jennifer Kraus
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Five years ago, a NewsChannel 5 investigation first exposed problems with patient care at the Tennessee State Veterans Home. After that, the U.S. Department of Justice launched its own investigation and found the state had failed to properly care for the veterans at the home and even contributed to some of their deaths.
Now, NewsChannel5 Investigates has found some of the same problems are happening again and, once again, a family is blaming the Veterans Home for their loved one's death.
Brenda Hickley recalls, "I put him in a nursing home which is a hard enough decision, God knows, so he would be safe, and he was not safe."
Hickley says what happened to her father at the Tennessee State Veterans Home in Murfreesboro would never have happened had the state-run nursing home for veterans done what it was supposed to.
"He would not have fallen. He would not have had to go through what he went through," Hickley told NewsChannel5 Investigates.
Her father, Thomas Grelen, was a staff sergeant with the Army Air Force, station in Japan shortly after World War II. He was proud to be a veteran, and that's why his daughter thought the Veterans Home would be a perfect fit.
But on March 6th of last year, she says, that all changed.
"He was moving backwards, stepping backwards, going to sit down on the bed, and he told the technician, 'I'm not back far enough.' And, she told him..."
Hickley fights back tears and then continues. "She told him, 'Don't worry about it.' And he slid off the bed and..."
Again, her voice chokes up.
What happened next was her father came crashing down. His right leg bent backwards and broke in several places. It was pinned underneath him and left that way for more than 20 minutes until paramedics arrived. By the time he got to the hospital, doctors said they couldn't save the leg and they were forced to amputate it.
"He was devastated by it," Hickley shared.
She says her father quickly went downhill from there, and just weeks later, he died, according to the autopsy, from complications caused by the fall.
The U.S. Justice Department had already warned the Veterans Home that it had an "unacceptably high" rate of falls that needed to be addressed. In fact, just a year before Thomas Grelen died, the Justice Department gave the state a list of corrective measures and said to get those problems fixed immediately.
But Hickley believes, "It was not fixed."
Because her father was prone to falls, his medical chart had repeated notations saying he needed maximum assistance or at least two people to move him from his wheelchair to his bed, but the home didn't follow that plan. When he fell, Grelen's daughter says he had just one female technician by his side.
Attorney Russ Thomas told NewsChannel5 Investigates, "It was a very clear case." Thomas represents Grelen's family who sued the state and Veterans Home for medical malpractice, negligence, and breaching the standard of care.
He says the state quickly offered to settle the case out of court.
NewsChannel5 Investigates asked Thomas, "They (the state) didn't put up much of a fight?"
"No, they did not," he answered.
The state refused to talk about the case, but a spokesperson was quick to point out that the facility got a five-star rating last year from the federal agency that oversees nursing homes.
And NewsChannel5 Investigates discovered that rating was based on care provided during the same time period Thomas Grelen fell and died.
Attorney Russ Thomas says, "I can't imagine how they would have gotten a five-star rating with a situation such as Mr. Grelen's occurring."
And, Grelen's daughter feels the same way. "It makes me want to stand in front of the facility with a sign saying, 'You're not a five-star. You've got a lot of work to do.'"
Grelen's family says they sued because they didn't want his death to be swept under the rug, and they hoped it would at least encourage the state to make changes, so another veteran wouldn't have to go through what he did.
So how did the Veterans Home get a five-star rating? It turns out, the federal agency that gave the home that rating didn't know about Thomas Grelen's fall or his death.
But the state never reported it even though there are rules that nursing homes must report unusual events like this.
The federal agency tells NewsChannel5 Investigates they're now looking into the situation.
The family sued the state for $300,000, the maximum allowed by law. The two sides agreed to settle for $245,000.
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