Serviceman Dies After Treating at VA Hospital, Family Compensated
On Oct. 28, 2014, Carol Merritt’s husband visited her at work unexpectedly to tell her their son had died. Aaron Merritt, 26, a former serviceman in the military, had gone to the emergency room of the Nashville Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital seriously ill and lost his life less than 24 hours later. The VA eventually agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the couple, but this is not an admission of fault.
According to Aaron’s parents’ lawsuit, filed in 2016, their son was the victim of a lack of communication between physicians and a failure to follow standard medical protocol.
“It’s hard to understand,” Merritt’s mother. “He did three tours of duty and then to come back…We always accepted we might get a knock at the door, that something might happen. But when he got back safely, we never thought we’d get a call in this way. I think the system let him down. He trusted them.”
The death certificate of the former serviceman says the immediate cause of death was the acid content of his blood, septic shock, and low levels of red and white blood cells and platelets. But his family believes the death could have been prevented, according to Frank B. Thacher, the family’s attorney.
“He did three tours, one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, and made it home but he died instead under the care of the VA. It’s unimaginable,” Carol Merritt said. “He protected all these people. Who protected Aaron?”
Thacher said, “Aaron slipped through the cracks in something that was very simple as giving a blood test. Our hope is the suit does affect some change in the VA. There’s no amount of money that can compensate Aaron for what he had to endure during the last moments of his life or what his parents lost.”
“He was just really a great kid,” his mother added. “In Afghanistan, he was always getting everyone to laugh and tried to keep everyone happy while he was there. He told me joking that he ‘was having a blast.’”
Doctors had diagnosed him with ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease that causes inflammation and sores in the digestive tract and had put him on the drug mesalamine in early 2014, just before he left the Army. In May of the same year, VA doctors in Nashville treated him for the first time and added a prescription for azathioprine, which can suppress the immune system. Doctors ignored the drug manufacturer’s recommendation of regular blood work, according to court documents, until the vital blood components needed to fight infection were so low, his blood had been poisoned.
Before being admitted to the ER on Oct. 27, 2014, Aaron Merritt sent an email to his VA physician indicating he was experiencing flare-ups of the ulcerative colitis, high temperatures, and ulcers in his mouth making it difficult to eat and drink.
“I’m also finding it difficult to keep food and water down,” he wrote. “I was wondering if this was something I should be seen for or if I could get new medications to treat this or improve my quality of life.”
The former serviceman was twice awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor, including once for saving the life of an Afghan soldier. He planned to use his military bomb detection knowledge in the civilian world working for the Transportation Security Administration and was in the process of applying when he passed.