Widow wants answers after husband overdoses while being treated at VA

Marine veteran Hank Brandon Lee died while at the Brockton VA. (Photos courtesy of Jaime-Lee Hasted)

It’s been almost five months since her husband died while in the care of the Veteran’s Administration.

Unfortunately, she still doesn’t know how he received a fatal dosage of the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl — and she is seeking answers.

Retired Marine Lance Cpl. Hank Brandon Lee suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder and was 1,500 miles away from his home in Saucier, Mississippi, and was seeking treatment at the Brockton Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s psychiatric unit in Massachusetts.

His wife, Jamie-Lee Hasted tells The Enterprise she had just hung up the phone after a conversation with her husband and headed out to mail him a package of family photographs.

Later that day, she says she sent him a message on Facebook, but received no response.

“You going to call me anytime today or are you sleeping again!” she wrote in the message.

Instead of a response from her husband, she received a phone call from the hospital’s staff: Lee had been found unresponsive in his room and was later pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Medical Center.

The father of three, young children was gone.

Hasted said, during an interview on Saturday, she’s been given no answers and still doesn’t understand how he could have obtained and overdosed on fentanyl under the VA’s watch.

“They promised me this wouldn’t happen. I understand the issue, but he was on lockdown, and they’re supposed to protect him from harming others and from harming himself,” she said. “They made me believe that’s what they were going to do — and they didn’t.”

The VA says it’s still unknown how the Marine got the drugs.

“Sadly, Lance Cpl. Lee was a victim of the opioid epidemic that kills nearly six people daily in Massachusetts,” Pallas Wahl, a spokesperson for the VA tells The Enterprise. “Lance Cpl. Lee suffered a fatal overdose of fentanyl while a patient at the Brockton campus. Fentanyl was not prescribed to any patient within our inpatient psychiatry unit, and Lance Cpl. Lee had no personal visitors during his inpatient psychiatry stay.”

Lee, whose autopsy report and medical records -obtained by The Enterprise– show he served seven tours in Afghanistan as a mortarman, struggled with a history of substance abuse and PTSD.

While deployed he was injured by an improvised explosive device leaving him designated 100 percent disabled.

His widow says that before she met him and before he began seeking help for his condition from the VA after his first suicide attempt. Lee had been using drugs and alcohol heavily to cope with the anxiety, depression and hallucinations that came along with PTSD.

Lee told hospital staff during interviews he had not been drinking recently but used marijuana regularly to alleviate his anxiety.

In group therapy sessions, The Enterprise reports he appeared eager to turn himself around, at one point writing that he felt “triumphant” at the moment on a card during an exercise.

The VA records show Lee was under observation March 4, with checks every 15 minutes, while in lock down. He was reportedly “fine” on his final check, but was found unresponsive and “slumped over” in his room by hospital staff about 5:30 p.m.

The VA says they operate a hospital not a “prison.”

“We do not perform searches of visitors, but we do require that they leave their belongings outside,” Wahl tells The Enterprise. “Importantly, fentanyl is so potent that lethal quantities might be too small to detect on a search. All visitors must check in and wear identification badges.”

Wahl also noted patients are searched during intake, but says patients are able to move about the campus.

“Stable patients are able to leave the unit for scheduled medical appointments with one-to-one supervision by nursing and to go for supervised visits in our Recreational Center with one-to-five supervision,” Wahl tells. “We only search patient rooms if there is cause for concern. We do not search for drugs upon re-entry, because appointments and recreational therapy are all conducted under close nursing supervision.”

Lee, although struggling as the anniversary of his injuries was approaching, was showing signs of improvement, and his widow says she thought so too.

During a phone call prior to the overdose, Hasted told staff that her husband sounded happier and seemed “closer to the man I fell in love with” while under their care.

“I’m left with the kids to pick up the pieces myself,” Hasted says. “It’s been extremely stressful. I live my life for my husband and kids. I was his caregiver and now my best friend, my partner, is gone just like that.”

Hasted is not alone in her search for answers. An advocacy group is teaming with her to get to the truth.

“We’ve got questions about when did he take it? Was it a tablet, or a piece of a patch?” Rick Collins, the founder of Vets 360, an advocacy group tells The Enterprise.

Although Hasted and Collins are seeking answers, Wahl says a review of the incident has been performed, but its findings are protected from disclosure under federal law. Without acknowledging the VA’s responsibility in Lee’s overdose, Wahl sticks to the VA’s canned talking points.

“We deeply regret every death from opioid overdose, and VA Boston has been a leader in trying to stem the opioid epidemic,” Wahl says. “Over the last two years, more than 100 opioid overdoses have been reversed by prescribing nasal naloxone to veterans with opioid use disorder, equipping VA police with naloxone, and placing naloxone in automated electronic defibrillator cabinets on hospital grounds.”

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  • Jim Verchio is a staff writer for Popular Military. As a retired Air Force Public Affairs craftsman, Jim has served at all levels. From staff writer to Editor-In-Chief, he has more than 30 years experience covering military topics in print and broadcast from the CONUS to Afghanistan. He is also a two time recipient of the DoD’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for journalism excellence.

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