TAMPA — His body racked by vascular disease, 85-year-old Varrian "Otto" Wigner struggled with every breath.
Doctors at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa could do little for him. They suggested the World War II veteran be sent to a hospice. Wigner's wife agreed but said she insisted on one condition:
The breathing device that eased her husband's suffering and helped keep him alive must be waiting for him. Haley didn't object.
But the device wasn't waiting on Aug. 29. The hospice immediately tried to get Haley to take Wigner back, his widow said.
Haley refused, his wife said, and Wigner died in less than 24 hours.
"They dumped him like garbage on the street," said Alina Wigner, 76, of Weeki Wachee, Wigner's wife of 53 years. "I never thought the VA would let him down like this."
The case is the third detailed by the St. Petersburg Times in recent months about allegations of poor patient care or veterans who said Haley was too busy to treat them.
Haley refused to discuss Wigner's case, citing patient privacy.
But a Haley spokeswoman denied that the hospital was so crowded in late August that it wouldn't treat veterans and said Haley had no record anyone asked that Wigner be taken back to the VA.
Haley director Stephen Lucas could not be reached to comment.
Lucas wrote an Oct. 15 letter to Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, about Wigner's case after the congresswoman had been contacted by Alina Wigner.
In that letter, Lucas confirmed Wigner asked about the availability of the breathing device, called a variable/bi-level positive airway pressure device, once her husband was taken to Melech Hospice House in Temple Terrace.
With the device, a mask is placed over the patient's face, and the apparatus ensures the delivery of oxygen to the lungs.
"Prior to his discharge," the letter said, "it was confirmed with the hospice nurse representative that they did have a BIPAP available at their facility."
In fact, under normal circumstances, the hospice would be responsible for providing all supplies and equipment required to care for a patient in its care.
But Wigner insisted that hospice employees were as surprised as she was when her husband arrived at Melech and no machine was available.
Brown-Waite and representatives of Melech House declined to comment.
Wigner said she never imagined her husband's life would end like this.
Otto Wigner was a popular locksmith in Hernando County. He was proud of his service in World War II, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart. He never completely retired.
Wigner had been in fairly good health before his right leg began causing him pain. With a history of circulatory problems, he was taken to a non-VA hospital in Hernando County in early June.
After 10 days, he was taken to Haley, where part of his leg was amputated. Soon, his condition deteriorated, and he spent nearly two months in intensive care.
Alina Wigner said Haley officials told her little more could be done for her husband. But she said nobody said he was terminal and she still held out hope her husband might recover.
Haley, she said, suggested he be taken to a hospice, and the family agreed.
Once arriving at the hospice, Wigner quickly noted that no BIPAP was available.
Her husband, who had been conscious, quickly became anxious and struggled to breath. The hospice gave him a sedative to calm him and called Haley to see if the VA would take him back, Wigner said.
"I couldn't think clearly," Wigner said. "I was in shock. I never imagined they wouldn't have that there for him."
After Haley refused to take the veteran back, Wigner said, she considered having her husband taken to another hospital and awaited the arrival of her two sons to help make a decision.
She said the hospice staff was very upset and held out hope it could do something to help Otto Wigner the next day, his wife said.
With the sedative, she said, her husband's breathing seemed better. Wigner said she thought she had enough time. She slept the night in her husband's room.
The next day, he died.
Wigner she wants other veterans to know her husband's story so they can learn from it.
"I was too trusting," Wigner said. "I'm angry because you can't fight the system. You're helpless against the VA."