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Witness Testimony of Katrina Shank, Murray, KY (Widow)

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen of this Committee:

My name is Katrina Marie Shank; I am sitting before you today because I am the widow of Robert (Bob) Earl Shank III of Murray, Kentucky, who passed away August 10, 2007, after a routine Laparoscopic Gallbladder Surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Marion, Illinois.

Bob was a United States Air Force Veteran, who served his country from July 30, 1975 - July 13, 1977, discharged with a service character of "Honorable."

I met my husband in July 1997, when he started working at the Maytag plant that I was hired into in September 1995.  We were co-workers and friends for six and a half years prior to our marriage on June 25, 2004.

Bob was a reliable hard worker and was promoted to group leader in our department, a position he held for several years. Upon the closure of the Maytag plant on December 26, 2006, we relocated to Murray, Kentucky, January 27, 2007, to be closer to my family, and to establish a start to our retirement together down near Kentucky Lake. Bob was an outdoorsman; he enjoyed hunting, fishing, golfing, and four-wheeler riding. We thought that if we were going to have to start all over then we would be somewhere we could enjoy retirement together.

Bob helped raise six children of which only one was his own. When I met him the first (older) three children were already young adults and out on their own. My children were still small and he wanted to be "the dad that he didn't have to be."

He was a man that took respect very seriously; before he asked me to marry him, he did not ask my father for my hand in marriage, he respected my children enough as individuals that he asked each of them for permission to marry me. It says a lot about a man's character, to want to raise another man's children, not once, but twice, when he could have started living his life without children still at home.

He was the type of man that if you needed something that he had, without any questions asked, it was yours. He was always trying to help the next person out.

We both wound up back in the VA system after we lost private insurance when the Maytag plant closed. Before that, since we had the private insurance to pay for our health care, we opted not to use the facilities and benefits, in hopes this would help with the overcrowding of the VA; giving the next veteran a better chance at receiving the help and care they needed, where that might be the only option many of our veterans have for healthcare.  In turn I now have reservations and fears of returning to the VA for my personal healthcare.

June 26, 2007, we traveled to the Marion VA for an ultrasound of his entire abdomen, in which only the upper right quadrant was scanned, the technician found the gallbladder and didn’t continue the scan on the rest of the abdomen; the test revealed that his gallbladder was full of stones and that surgery to remove the gallbladder was the course of action to be taken.

I started my new job on July 26, 2007, in fear of putting my job in jeopardy so soon after hiring in, I was un-able to attend his first meeting with Dr. Mendez on August 2, 2007. Bob was originally scheduled for surgery in September, but before he left the hospital that day there was a cancellation for August 9, 2007 he was asked if “he would like to have that appointment instead,”  naturally in a desperate attempt to be relieved of his pain he accepted that earlier appointment.  I wonder “would he still be here today had his surgery not been moved up; chances are he might have even had a different surgeon, given the investigation that we now know would have started prior to the surgery being performed in September instead of August.”

With the same fear of losing my job I “almost” did not accompany Bob to surgery that day, one of my parents was going in my place instead, “Thank the good Lord above that I found the courage and strength to approach my new boss with my situation and ask for the time off that I needed for his surgery.”

The first time I met Dr. Mendez was after Bob’s surgery when he came to me and said “something had gone wrong during surgery, Mr. Shank just wouldn’t wake up, maybe he had a heart attack, maybe he had a stroke, I just don’t know what happened; we are taking him up to ICU where he can be cared for, I have another patient waiting on me.”

We left out-patient surgery and went to ICU, we were standing in the hallway when they wheeled my husband by, going into ICU.  As they passed, a nurse was manually bagging him to keep him breathing; the next time I saw my husband as the doctor pulled me by the hand through a crowded room, full of nurses and doctors to his bedside.  He lay there motionless, with tubes coming out of his body hooked to IV’s and machines; as he was already placed on life support.

Throughout the course of the night, I was approached by Dr. Mendez several times listening to him compare my husband to a “car” that needed routine check-ups and blamed my husband for not taking care of his body.  He also at one point told me that Bob had liver damage we knew nothing about, and that had caused his problems.  The autopsy performed on my husband did not reveal any liver damage (the doctor covering his own tracks).

As my husband lay there with his blood pressure still dropping, another doctor and I questioned Dr. Mendez about taking him back into surgery, to find out where the blood was going; Dr. Mendez’s response was “I have this under control.”   He waited several hours before taking him back into surgery to explore where he was losing blood from.  Standing in the hallway talking to Dr. Mendez, he told my sister and me, “I have to try something, I either let him lay here and die, or I kill him on the operating table, but I have to try something.”  By the time he took him, Bob’s blood pressure was so low, his blood was not spurting with his heart beat; it was just an “oozing” effect making it difficult for Dr. Mendez to determine where the blood was coming from.  I believe had he gone back into surgery sooner when it was suggested by the other doctor, my husband would have had a better chance for survival.

The autopsy revealed his bile duct had been cut and he had a 2cm laceration to his liver, the sutures that were placed in my husband’s body had a knot at one end of the stitch and not at the other end.  The heart attack and/or stroke the doctor blamed my husband’s death on, was not supported by the autopsy either. 

As I left the hospital after my husband passed away, I had an overwhelming feeling that there was more to this story; something just didn’t seem right. The nurses had a look in their eyes, that they knew something but just couldn’t tell me what it was.

I returned to the hospital on August 16, 2007, to sign papers for release of information, to obtain a copy of his medical records and autopsy report (to this day we still do not have a complete set of records).  But while I was there, I saw the Chaplain, who sat and prayed with me through the night, and one of the nurses that took care of my husband in ICU, again with that same look on their faces, and in their eyes that told me there was more to my husband’s story and they just couldn’t tell me.  Before my children and I left the hospital that day a hospital employee (which I had contact with shortly after Bob’s passing) pulled me to the side, as he looked around and over our shoulders as if to make sure no-one could over hear, he told me “You need to hire an attorney, that my husband was Dr. Mendez’s third patient death “recently”; one of which, the man’s wife worked at the hospital, Dr. Mendez had up and resigned from the hospital Monday morning and he didn’t even have the decency to come to the hospital to resign, he sent them an e-mail instead.”  (August 13, 2007, just 3 days after Bob passed away).  As my mouth and my heart fell to the floor I was shocked and instantly angry, as the pieces of the untold story were now falling into place; this seemed to be the coward’s way out and that he was on the run cause he knew he had done something to Bob.  In my mind, him fleeing was his admission of guilt as to what happened to my husband.

As I look back on the day of August 9, 2007, on our drive up from Murray, Kentucky, to Marion, Illinois (about a two hour drive) we didn't discuss his operation, We were at ease knowing that he was finally going to get the relief from his pain that he so desperately needed and had waited for. We did not foresee any problems, or complications, and assumed he would be returning home with me the next day, August 10, 2007. However, he passed away that Friday morning instead, but finally we were able to bring him home August 16, 2007, in a wooden urn that now sits on top of our entertainment center.  A picture of him cropped out of our wedding photo is overlooking his urn; alongside are two of his Air Force pictures placed underneath two trophy ducks that he had hung on the wall himself, when we moved into our new apartment to start living the rest of our lives together and looking forward to our retirement.  I speak to my husband's ashes and picture every night before going to bed. I stand there with tears rolling down my face telling him how the day had gone and how much he missed out on each day. I always end my conversation with, "I Love You and I Miss You,  Goodnight My Love," and give him a goodnight kiss on the "outdoor" scenery of the urn, where my husband now "Rests In Peace."

No other veteran's family should have to go through this heartache and pain that mine and Bob's families have to endure!!! So in closing I ask why my husband's life had to end this way?  Why was this allowed to happen, given Dr. Jose Viezaga-Mendez's track record? How did the system fail my husband and several other veterans at the hands of this Doctor? How many other veterans are going to have to lose their lives before we, as a Country, can offer them more reliable health care?

I want to thank you for this opportunity to have our voices heard and our questions answered. Although, my husband did not die during battle for our Country, I ultimately believe that through us he is still fighting for the safety of his comrades in arms and the future health care of our American Veterans.