The VA’s “Black Hole of Calcutta”

A year ago today, I was at Hines VA Hospital near Chicago visiting a friend, Rick Springer. I had been there many times before as Rick suffered many serious health problems. While he was grateful for the free health care provided to him as a veteran, he had some horrific experiences at Hines.

Late one night, in the dead of winter, he called me from his room in the hospital’s extended care unit. He whispered, “In case I don’t make it, I want there to be a record of what’s going on here.” I grabbed a pen and took notes.

a bird's eye view of Hine's campus
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Mainly, Rick’s complaints were of neglect. And he didn’t feel he was listened to by staff, including doctors.

During every conversation I had with Rick while he was in Extended Care, he told me how cold he was in his room. “These blankets are more like sheets,” he said. “There isn’t any warmth to them at all!”

I brought him a nice, heavy quilt I had bought for my son and purchased a new heavy robe, slippers, and tube socks. But, I’m afraid I was too late.

After months in Extended Care, Rick was sent home. Shortly thereafter, he developed excruciating back pain. He was certain it was caused by the poor conditions at Hines. That led to a back brace which was more like a body brace. When Rick called me the day his doctor told him he no longer had to wear it, you would have thought he’d won the lottery.

To no surprise, Rick found the food at the VA disgusting both in the hospital and in Extended Care. Whenever he was brought a tray while I was there, he never touched it. When he was still in decent shape, I’d sneak him a hot beef sandwich from a nearby Portillo’s. Sometimes, he’d request a donut and a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. Even the VA coffee was bad!

VA's "Defining Excellence" logo
The best public relations strategy is excellent service, not catchy slogans.

The worst part of Hines VA that I could see was the isolation of so many veterans, either sitting or lying in their rooms, alone, suffering from one thing or another. There was no life, no color, no music, and seemingly no joy. Rick would sometimes refer to the extended care unit as “the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

The morning after Rick called me in the middle of the night, I called the Hines Patient Advocate office as well as the Illinois office of Sen. Mark Kirk, also a veteran. I never told Rick I had made those calls but soon he was telling me of all kinds of attention and offers for services he was suddenly getting. He was both flabbergasted and grateful. While I was glad for him, I felt for the vets who might not have anyone to call and complain on their behalf.

Every veteran deserves the best care and treatment possible.

Last Friday, Sen. Kirk held a hearing on conditions at VA hospitals, specifically Hines. Then, he released a statement which included the following:

“Wistleblowers at Hines VA have exposed a dark side of the VA that should have no place in our veterans’ health care.”

If VA reform ever comes, it’ll be too late for Rick Springer, a humble veteran from Chicago who died at Hines on November 14, 2015. But, I’ll always believe he had a hand in making things better for the next guy.