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Dying in a VA hospital

Local family wants answers

Published: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:06 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:11 p.m. CDT
(BCR photo/Goldie Currie)
Rainy Hopper of Tiskilwa holds up a certificate of recognition of her brother, Nicholas Cutter's service to the county. The certificate is signed by President Barack Obama and was sent to the family following the death of Cutter.

TISKILWA — A Tiskilwa woman is rallying her troops to help pass a federal bill that could bring justice to the alleged neglectful death of her brother, Nicholas Cutter, who died under medical care in a Miami veteran’s (VA) hospital.

Rainy Hopper, along with her mother, Mary Zielinski, are sweeping the news headlines — both locally and nationally — as they tell the compelling story of their family member.

Cutter, who was a 2004 graduate of Princeton High School, served a 15-month tour in the Iraq War. When he returned home, however, he was hospitalized for his diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and hard addiction to cocaine.

It took Cutter nine months to get accepted into the Miami VA hospital, but when he did, his family was more than relieved knowing the particular hospital specialized in PTSD and drug rehabilitation.

They figured this might be the answer to their family member’s harsh addiction and struggle to maintain a normal lifestyle following his served time.

According to Hopper, the family received weekly reports stating Cutter had tested clean in routine drug tests. To family members, he seemed to be doing great and well on the road to recovery.

On May 31 of last year, Hopper said her mother even received a letter from Lester Hartswick, a patient advocate at the hospital, stating that Cutter was progressing and would soon be graduating from the program.

The next day, June 1, 2013, the hospital notified the family saying Cutter had died from aspiration.

Cutter’s mother drove to the hospital, where staff members handed over her son’s personal belongings in a garbage bag.

Looking back, Hopper is appalled the hospital used garbage bags to get rid of her brother’s belongings.

“He was someone. He served our country. Why would you give us his things in garbage bags? That’s were the garbage goes. Why would you even assume that’s an OK thing to do,” Hopper said.

The family, however, said nothing at the time. While details seemed to still be unclear about the passing of Cutter, they accepted what had happened, grieved for their loss and buried him in Spring Valley.

One year goes by ...

Zielinski received a phone call a couple months ago from CBS Miami asking for an interview about the death of her son.

Still waiting to learn more about the investigation into what exactly happened, Zielinski agreed to the interview.

While on camera with the reporter, she discovered the Inspector General (IG) had completed an investigation into the death and determined the cause of death to be a cocaine overdose.

“They did that interview and hit her with a bomb,” Hopper said. “It was the VA’s fault that she didn’t know anything. They didn’t even tell her the IG’s report had even happened.”

In the report, Zielinski also discovered during the time of her son’s death the hospital’s security cameras had been broken, and the security at the door was so limited that no one asked to see a pass or ID of those coming or going.

“I always say that’s a huge thing because these are patients dealing with PTSD,” Hopper said. “If they haven’t killed themselves or someone else, they could do something drastic. These are the people who know how to defend themselves and know how to use a gun.”

The report also mentioned a majority of the staff spent most of their shift in a back room.

“They didn’t come check on patients; they didn’t do night charting or breathalyzer tests or night vitals,” Hopper said. “If they would have done my brother’s night vitals, they would have discovered his heart rate was so rapid from the cocaine, and they probably could have saved his life.”

It was also noted in the IG’s report that Cutter had been so high from the drugs that he had to be helped to bed by other patients in the hospital.

“If he was doing drugs and smuggling them in, why weren’t we notified?” Hopper questioned. “As a family we would have went in, ripped him out and put him in a new drug rehab center because obviously he wasn’t doing well in Miami.”

A whistleblower comes forward

Since Cutter’s story has gone public, a Miami VA police officer, Thomas Fiore, who still works at the facility, has come forward stating the death could have been prevented, and the hospital had known he had died several hours before they reported the incident.

Fiore admitted to CBS Miami the hospital had evidence that Cutter was smuggling drugs into the facility and using them.

Hopper said she and her family cannot deny that Cutter had overdosed on cocaine, but they are outraged they were not notified of his drug problem.

“They are now saying he didn’t pass four drug tests. We were not notified of any of these tests,” Hopper said. “We also don’t know what time he died. We still have not seen a toxicology report, an autopsy report, or know what exactly what was in his system when he died; or what was done with his body before they reported the death. Nothing.”

Another piece of the puzzle that doesn’t sit well with the family is Cutter’s veteran grave headstone has still not been sent to his grave — which was the responsibility of the VA hospital.

What’s happening now?

Cutter’s family turned to a lawyer and looked into suing the hospital, however, they discovered VA hospitals are protected so tightly by federal and state laws about misconduct, neglect and death that as the law stands now, it is impossible to sue.

“The laws are wrapped so tight to make sure no one is held accountable, and if you die, you just die,” Hopper said. “We’re not ready to let that happen because it’s disgusting … We’re not even close to being done fighting, and we’re taking this to Congress and national news.”

Currently, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) is sponsoring a bill that will allow the secretary of the VA to fire employees found not doing their jobs correctly. If the bill is passed, the family will then be able to hold whoever is responsible for the death of Cutter accountable.

Hopper and her mother are turning to every media outlet who will listen to Cutter’s story to help spread awareness of how the passing of the bill could help bring justice.

“We want people to know that we’re not looking for any sort of donations or charity. All we want is awareness and for those people at the VA hospital to be held accountable,” Hopper said.

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