- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs has apologized to the family of an Army veteran who died last year after being turned away from a Bronx VA hospital after he refused to participate in an Alzheimer’s disease study.

Joe Fitzgerald, 74, died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - the human form of mad cow disease - less than a month after being dismissed without diagnosis or treatment at James J. Peters VA Medical Center, The Washington Times reported Friday.

His widow, Aimee Fitzgerald, has demanded answers from the VA as to whether human research testing is taking a priority over the health care of veterans after the agency responded that the Alzheimer’s study was a “mandate.”

“I can only apologize that Mrs. Fitzgerald perceived a sense of callousness, or a sense that there was some additional diagnostic or other measures to be offered,” Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake said in a letter to the editor at The Times. “It will renew our emphasis to VA staff about sensitivity in communicating.”

The VA has come under scrutiny and criticism over its human-subject experiments since a Washington Times/ABC News investigation revealed in July that the agency had failed to quickly notify participants in a smoking-cessation study about the potentially dangerous side effects of a drug some participants were taking.

A recent investigation of experiments conducted at an Arkansas veterans hospital uncovered rampant violations, including missing consent forms, secret HIV testing and failure to report more than 100 deaths of subjects participating in studies.

Mr. Fitzgerald sought treatment for his sudden loss of motor skills at the Bronx VA hospital when his attending physician, Dr. Ruth Walker, said that enrolling in the Alzheimer’s study would enable a quicker diagnosis of his disease, Mrs. Fitzgerald said.

Dr. Walker introduced the family to Dr. Christine Bergmann, who headed the Alzheimer’s study. VA officials said Dr. Bergmann did not have the authority to offer a diagnosis.

“I can only apologize for the family’s perception in this tragic case and to let them know that it will serve as a system-wide reminder about the importance of clear and compassionate communication,” Mr. Peake said in his letter to the editor.

The Times also reported that Arthur Caplan, one of the nation’s premier medical ethicists and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the first obligation of any caregiver is to treat the patient.

In his letter, Mr. Peake - a physician himself - said he and his agency “completely share Mr. Caplan’s view.”

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