“I stand here before you terminally ill today.”
That was how Barry Coates, an Army veteran from McBee, began a hearing with members of Congress on Wednesday.
Coates was in Washington to talk about his own experiences in dealing with delays in U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) hospitals and clinics that he said led to his colorectal cancer being undetected for nearly an entire year. His testimony came as the committee continues investigating backlogs at a VA hospital in Columbia from 2011 to 2012 which led to hundreds of colorectal screenings and treatments being pushed back. A VA Inspector General’s report released last September linked the delayed screenings to 52 cancer cases and 6 deaths.
Coates told members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Wednesday that he went to a Rock Hill VA clinic in January 2011 complaining of rectal pain. He said he was given medication, but the pain continued. He said the physician noted he “may need” a colonoscopy, but did not set up a screening. When he moved to McBee that following July, he was eventually transferred to a Florence clinic.
The doctor in Florence was concerned that Coates had not met with gastroenterologist and set up an appointment with a gastrointestinal surgeon at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia. It took until October for the surgeon to set up a meeting, but there was a six-month wait for the colonoscopy. Coates said he was eventually able to get an unexpected opening in December — 11 months after he had first noticed the pain.
Coates said the screening found a tumor “as big as a fist.” He was told it was likely stage four colorectal cancer.
Unknown to Coates, Dorn VA officials at the time were facing an enormous backlog of roughly 4,000 colorectal patients as critical nursing positions went unfilled for months. The Inspector General’s report noted critical leaders at the hospital and the regional VA headquarters did not take “immediate and aggressive actions” to solve the problem even though the hospital had received an extra $1 million to address it. Only $275,000 of that was used, according to the report.
“Someone needs to be held accountable for it, and I understand… no one’s been held accountable for it,” Coates told the committee.
While surgeries and chemotherapy were able to eradicate the cancer, Coates said he is concerned about spots that have begun appearing on his lungs and liver.
He was eventually awarded $150,000 for pain and suffering, but says he has lost his quality of life due to mistakes at the VA.
“I’m 44 years old,” he said. “I’m fairly young and a lot of things I can’t do. I can’t enjoy playing with my grandchildren. I can’t enjoy doing things that I could as a normal 45-year-old man.”
Coates said he is opening up about his situation in hopes that it will lead to changes at the VA.