A Vietnam veteran living in Olympia is suing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs two years after he developed a severe bacterial infection while he was receiving care at the system’s Seattle hospital that led to the amputation of his right leg.
Steve Garletts alleges VA doctors were negligent in their care over a three-week stretch in late 2011. It began when he sought treatment for an ankle fracture he suffered in an accident at his Alaska home. He took a turn for the worse when he contracted an antibiotic-resistant MRSA infection.
The former Marine is seeking unspecified compensation for his traumatic injuries, disfigurement and loss of earning capacity.
“I came in with a simple fracture and I came out without a leg,” Garletts, 65, said in an interview this month.
VA Puget Sound declined to comment on the specifics of Garletts’ lawsuit. He filed the claim in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Feb. 13.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is an antibiotic resistant bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The VA in recent years has received positive attention in medical studies and in press reports for its efforts to prevent the spread of MRSA. It checks patients for the infections as soon as they’re admitted for care.
Internal VA hospital reviews obtained by The Seattle Times last fall also noted the VA Puget Sound was among the best in the VA system at limiting MRSA infections.
The MRSA rate was a bright spot in a report that documented the hospital’s poor performance in other internal comparisons, such as patient mortality following surgeries and pneumonia infections connected to the use of hospital ventilators.
The MRSA infection rate at VA Puget Sound was recently reported at 0.01 percent per 1,000 patient bed days of care. In 2010, the rate in VA intensive care units across the country was 0.62 infections per 1,000 patient days, according to a 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Doctors at VA Puget Sound tested Garletts for MRSA soon after he arrived at the hospital on Nov. 23, 2011. The test came back negative, according to Garletts’ lawsuit.
He said he got to the hospital a day after he tripped and snapped his ankle while working on a cabin in a remote part of southeast Alaska.
A friend drove him 40 miles to a medical clinic, and Garletts told doctors he preferred to get medical attention for the fracture at the Seattle VA instead of at a hospital in Ketchikan.
Large fracture blisters swelled over his injury while he traveled from his cabin to the clinic and on to Seattle. VA doctors postponed surgery to give the blisters time to heal. They placed a cast on his ankle and released him to the care of his sister in Seattle.
Five days later, doctors checked the injury and put a new a cast on his ankle. On Nov. 30, they removed the cast and drained Garletts’ blisters in what his lawyers described as a “non-sterile” setting.
Garletts returned to the hospital the next day with “confusion and pain.” Doctors sent him home without recognizing the signs of illness setting in, his lawyers wrote.
On Dec. 3, Garletts was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit with sepsis and acute respiratory failure. His condition worsened and he was diagnosed with MRSA on Dec. 4.
On Dec. 6, doctors found pus and dead skin accumulating around the ankle. They decided to halt the infection’s spread by amputating Garletts’ right leg below the knee on Dec. 9.
Garletts walks with a prosthetic leg and a cane. He’s unable to work. He takes a daily mix of pain killers and respiratory medicine.
“If the reasonable prudent standard of care had been by met by (VA doctors), Mr. Garletts would not have suffered such severe injury, leading to his amputation, pulmonary failure complications, complications related to infection and other serious health complications likely to shorten Mt. Garletts’ life,” wrote his attorneys, Gordon Webb and George Kargianis.
Garletts has lived most of life in Alaska since he left the Marines in 1970. He grew up in Bellevue and has extensive family ties in the Puget Sound area.
He moved to Olympia in September after doctors told him he would have trouble making it through an Alaska winter, especially in the remote area where he lived.
He still hopes to travel between Alaska and Washington in the years ahead. His mobile home in Olympia is decorated with mementos from the years he spent working on ships in Alaska and on helicopters in Vietnam, where he was a crew chief on CH-53 helicopters.
The infection weakened his heart. He says he loses his breath quickly and can’t exercise. He gave up working on the cabin last year.
“I have a hard time going up steps,” he said.