Hospital Released Vet Who Refused Study; Widow Sees Priority as Research, Not Care

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Byline: Audrey Hudson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

An Army veteran seeking treatment for his sudden loss of motor skills was turned away from a veterans hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., in May 2007 after he refused to participate in a human subject experiment on Alzheimer's disease.

Joe Fitzgerald, 74, died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - the human form of mad cow disease - less than a month after being dismissed without diagnosis from James J. Peters VA Medical Center.

His widow is demanding answers from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as to whether human research testing is taking a priority over the health care of veterans at its hospitals.

I want them to be held accountable for this, to prevent this from happening to someone else, Aimee Fitzgerald said. Nothing could have saved Joe, but the care there was hateful and incompetent.

Mrs. Fitzgerald said the research study doctor, Christine Bergmann, told the family that her husband's participation in the study would enable researchers to make a quicker diagnosis of his condition.

But VA officials said Dr. Bergmann did not have the authority to offer a diagnosis.

[The study] has very little to do with their diagnosis, and it is not consistent with what occurred, said MaryAnn Musumeci, director of the Bronx hospital.

That's mind-boggling. That's not true, Mrs. Fitzgerald said. "Dr. Bergmann made it very clear to us that the benefit of signing up for the study would be that she would develop an individual profile of

Joe that would help them to arrive at a diagnosis faster."

The VA made several officials available for comment, but not Dr. Bergmann.

VA officials and the Fitzgerald family also differ over the circumstances of Mr. Fitzgerald's discharge and whether the hospital provided care.

Miss Musumeci said Mr. Fitzgerald was admitted only for testing and clinical evaluation and that he was referred back to his physician at Castle Point VA Hospital for further care and testing.

He was released because his work-up was complete. We did all the tests we could have done, Miss Musumeci said.

In an interview with The Washington Times, VA officials said they knew Mr. Fitzgerald was suffering from a rapidly debilitating disease.

Asked why the hospital released instead of treating the veteran, Miss Musumeci said, He was in need of hospice care, and that is what Castle Point provides.

Castle Point VA Hospital, a part of the VA Hudson Valley Healthcare System in Dutchess County, N.Y., does not identify itself as a hospice facility and does not advertise its hospice care among its patient services.

Mrs. Fitzgerald said she was advised to keep future testing appointments with Castle Point and that the Bronx hospital never recommended hospice care or said they knew her husband's health was deteriorating.

Mr. Fitzgerald's discharge papers stated that he was in stable condition.

The Bronx VA hospital incident is the latest to raise questions about the ethics of human subject research experiments conducted at VA facilities nationwide.

A recent investigation of experiments conducted at an Arkansas veterans hospital uncovered rampant violations, including missing consent forms, secret HIV testing and failure to report more than 100 deaths of subjects participating in studies.

Moreover, Iraq war veteran James Elliott told a congressional committee in July that he sought treatment from the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and instead was persuaded to join a smoking-cessation study. …