Veteran kills himself after VA accidentally tells him he is dying

Three days after being told he had terminal cancer with no cure in sight, U.S. Army veteran Gene Spencer committed suicide.  The next day his wife Shirley Fobke received a call from the Phoenix VA Medical Center that they had a mistake and Spencer was not about to die.  The call came one day too late.

AZ Central reported a federal lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Phoenix after the VA rejected a wrongful-death claim for $2.5 million in the case of misdiagnose.  A physician at the VA told Spencer cancer had metastasized into his lungs and he had only weeks to live.  One day after he took his own life, the hospital called to say they were wrong and it looked like it was only fluid around the lungs.

“As a result of the misdiagnosis,” said the suit, “Shirley Fobke suffered and will continue to suffer emotional and economic injury, lost wages, lost opportunity for financial gain, future earning capacity, loss of consortium, loss of love and affection.”

Fobke’s claim letter was sent to the VA in July. It was denied.

According to AZ Central, the circumstances leading to Spencer’s death are listed in an antiseptic manner in the court complaint, but the impact is described with agonizing detail in an earlier letter of claim submitted to the VA hospital.

The letter alleged misdiagnosis was one just one of the many failures Spencer experienced in the VA healthcare system. Written by former U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera, it gave an intimate account of Spencer’s life.

It described Spencer’s life as a Phoenix native, including graduating from high school and college from Arizona schools and universities.  It spoke of how he was drafted in 1968 into the Army medical corps and served his country for two years.

Spencer was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010 and had a life expectancy of five to six years with proper treatment. While undergoing treatment, the claim alleged Spencer received “too much radiation that caused lung problems and his immune system to be deficient.”

After continual problems with VA doctor appointments and no relief from the pain management clinic, Spencer almost gave up in 2011 because of the pain.  “He was curled up in the fetal position in the backyard,” Fobke recalled, “and he had a gun with him.”

Because he had been given a prognosis of three to five years, the two made of list of things they wanted to do before he died.  By 2012, the big dream was a vacation together in Hawaii.

However, one day before the trip, Spencer was admitted to the VA medical center because of shortness of breath. The claim letter said during a procedure to remove excess fluids, a surgeon punctured Spencer’s lung, “allowing fluid to flow into the lung.” The doctor allegedly informed Spencer that he “made a mistake” and would have to perform a second operation, according to the legal claim.

AZ Central reported that one day later, Spencer and Fobke were advised that adenocarcinoma had metastasized in Spencer’s lungs and “nothing more would be done in the way of treatment.” The doctor told them to go home and get his final affairs in order. “At best, Gene would have a few weeks to live.”

Fobke said her husband had seen the way a friend had suffered from terminal cancer. He decided to end his life on October 8, 2012.  Fobke later notified the VA hospital that her husband would not make his next chemotherapy appointment because he was deceased.

She said only one day had passed when the surgeon called to say the fluid around Spencer’s lungs was not cancer.

Fobke said her husband was “a big-hearted, loving, caring man who was very charismatic. It just wasn’t right. He deserved better than what they did to him.”

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