Veteran dies at VA hospital with high levels of painkillers in system

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - The family of an Army veteran is still left with questions, months after their loved one died at the Salisbury VA Medical Center.

Kenneth Burris was supposed to be discharged from the hospital on September 1, 2016 after a three-day stay for surgery related to cancer.

Instead, he ended up dead.

Burris' death certificate says he died of a heart attack. But it is not clear what caused that heart attack. When Burris' sister Karen heard her brother had died, she immediately thought of the likely culprit.

"They OD'd him," she told WBTV was her first thought after hearing of her brother's death. "Because while I was there, one of the nurses couldn't turn off the pain machine; it was beeping. She couldn't get it to stop beeping."

Burris' VA medical records show he was hooked up to a machine dispensing pain medication until the afternoon on the day before his death. He was being given methadone and oxycodone, among other drugs, to help ease his pain.

After he was taken off the machine that dispensed the drugs, his medical records show, doctors prescribed the same paid medications by mouth.

An autopsy found elevated levels of methadone and oxycodone that, the report said, could be lethal.

But nobody at the VA has ever taken steps to explain to Burris' family why the levels of two powerful narcotics were so high.

"I feel like somebody should be held accountable because you didn't just take my brother from me, you took him from the rest of the family," Karen Burris said.

In addition to questions about the level of narcotics in her brother's system, Karen Burris also wants to know why a nurse did not take her brothers vitals on two different occasions before his death.

Burris' medical records show a nurse went into his room to take his vitals twice before he died—once just after midnight at once at 4:15 a.m.—in the early morning of September 1, 2016 but left the room without doing it.

Burris was found unresponsive and without a pulse just 30 minutes after the second time the nurse went in.

Instead of going home from the hospital, Kenneth Burris was dead. His family was left with questions that, so far, the VA has not been willing or able to answer.

"He was just so alive, he was fine," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Salisbury VA medical center said the hospital is now reviewing Burris' death in response to our request for an explanation. The hospital issued the following statement:

Our hearts once again go out to the family and friends of this veteran as they did at the time of the event last year, and we offer our deepest condolences for their loss.

We take seriously any allegation of substandard care and immediately assembled a team to review the performance and decision-making of clinicians involved in this case, and assess the involved systems of care.  Our mission is always to provide veterans with the highest quality medical care, and we are consistently working to strengthen service to our patients and their families. This review will determine if the highest quality of care was provided, and will identify any opportunities for system improvement.

We have been in touch with the veteran's family and will continue to be accessible to them to provide information from the veteran's medical records and assist them during this difficult time.

It is not clear when the hospital's review will conclude nor whether anyone will be disciplined as a result of the review's findings.

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