Photos taken inside a North Carolina veterans hospital that show a veteran lying on the floor and another slouched in a wheelchair while writhing in pain are drawing outcry online and an internal investigation.
“It was the worst thing to ever happen in my life,” Vietnam War veteran Jesse Lee, 63, who identified himself as the man photographed in the wheelchair, said as he described his agony to The Huffington Post on Wednesday.
Lee, who lost his leg to diabetes, said he was among several people waiting at the Durham VA Center on Feb. 24 after experiencing severe phantom leg pain.
Another veteran’s wife snapped the waiting room photos and posted them on Facebook on Saturday. They’ve since gone viral, catching the attention of Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) and Sen. John McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, who called the scene “shameful.”
Lee, who said he has been a patient at the hospital for 16 years, said it’s not uncommon to wait about three hours to see someone. But last week’s visit was one for the books.
“It was really, really bad,” he said while recalling his pain. “I waited about two hours and went up to the nurse’s desk to find out if there was something they could do because I could no longer stand the pain, it was making me sick in my stomach. But they told me to go sit back down in the waiting room. Then after about an hour I asked if there was something they could do.”
In the end, Lee said, “I sat there for five hours in this pain.”
Hanna McMenamin, who told HuffPost that she snapped the photos during a visit with her Marine husband, Stephen McMenamin, backed Lee’s description.
In her Facebook post, she described seeing Lee “yelling in pain” and “borderline convulsing and almost falling out of his chair he was in so much pain.”
Sharonda Pearson, a public affairs officer at the medical center, told HuffPost Wednesday that it expects to have an investigation of the situation completed by March 10 (reviews typically require 10 business days). She added that the photos were taken on “one of the busiest days” in its emergency department and that 100 to 130 people came through the facility that day.
“All of the allegations will be investigated,” she said.
One incident involved a patient who ended up on the floor reportedly after his request for somewhere to lie down was dismissed.
“He could barely walk, sit up, or breathe,” McMenamin said in her post.
Lee recalled seeing the same thing.
“Eventually the man laid down on the floor and they went in there and picked him up and set him back in the chair,” Lee told HuffPost. “He said, ‘I can’t wait in the chair. I’m too weak. I need to lie down.’ They said, ‘You can sit in that chair and wait.’ Eventually, this young man who was sitting in a little area there, he was sitting in a recliner, and he offered him the recliner.”
“Eventually, the man laid down on the floor and they went in there and picked him up and set him back in the chair.”
McMenamin said that the man who offered his recliner was her husband, who was provided the chair by the staff because of his lower back pain.
The relief was short-lived, however.
“This man sat in the chair for probably about 15 minutes before he was told he had to get up immediately,” McMenamin said.
When McMenamin’s husband asked the nurse why the man couldn’t have his reclining chair, she said, the nurse “stormed off” without an explanation.
Lee said that after seeing the man being placed in a regular chair by security, the man went back onto the floor. Soon, he said, security returned and took the man to see a doctor.
Durham Medical Center Director DeAnne Seekins called it a “regrettable incident” but one she said she’s thankful was brought to the center’s attention, she said in a statement Tuesday.
“Our mission is to provide the highest level of health care to Veteran, so upon learning of the incident, I took swift action. The employee was immediately removed from patient care pending the results of an internal review,” she stated, referring to the nurse on duty.
McMenamin has since said that the medical center has asked her to remove the photos, which do not include the patients’ faces because some of the veterans don’t want to be identified. She has refused.
Lee, when asked by HuffPost how he feels about his photo being shown, replied: “I’m fine with it. People need to know.”
Asked what he’d like to see changed, he answered: “If somebody is in that much pain, I think they should notice it or take better care of the person. I wouldn’t think that nobody would be there faking pain.”