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VA hospital killed former soldier with excessive painkillers, lawsuit says

SALT LAKE CITY — Former soldier Gregory Lee Smith just wanted doctors at Veterans Affairs Medical Center to fix his chronic back problems so he could become a police officer. But, his parents say, they killed him with an excessive amount of painkillers after surgery two years ago.

Gregory Lynn Smith and Jeri Bolinder blame the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the death of their 30-year-old son in a federal lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City this week.

Smith and Bolinder say the loss devastated them.

"Greg is in (his father's) heart and mind all the time. He actually finds himself telling himself that he needs to think of something else," the lawsuit says. "(He) will never see Greg in his police uniform, 'serving and protecting' again, as he swore to do as a soldier.

"Jeri lies awake at night and cries because her heart aches to see, touch and hold her son again," according to the suit. "She sees his beautiful face in her dreams and wakes to the reality that she will never hold him again."

Requests for comment from the VA were not immediately returned. It does not typically comment on pending litigation.

A Tooele High School graduate, Greg Smith joined the Army after 9/11. He was stationed in South Korea and Louisiana before being medically discharged in 2005 due to a back injury. He studied criminal justice at Salt Lake Community College and wanted to be a police officer like his father.

Smith underwent a third surgery Oct. 19, 2010, to have an electronic stimulator permanently placed in his back. He expected to remain hospitalized for a few days but was discharged a day after the surgery despite being in pain, having trouble with his oxygen levels and suffering from sleep apnea, according to the lawsuit

He told his roommate, Dorothy Mechanic, “I was to stay a few days, and I feel they are kicking me out to make another bed for another patient. I am afraid of leaving so soon.”

A day after leaving the hospital, Smith became ill and vomited several times. Mechanic, an emergency medical technician, stayed near him to monitor his pulse and breathing. Around midnight, Mechanic heard Smith snoring loudly in his room.

When she checked on him about 7 a.m. the next morning, he was dead, the lawsuit states.

The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office concluded Smith died of "an acute mixed drug intoxication involving his prescription medications." It also found that sleep apnea might have contributed to his death but that it was unlikely he would have died from that alone without the medications, according to the lawsuit.

"The prescription drugs (doctors at Veterans Affairs Medical Center) prescribed to Greg killed him," the suit claims.

All of the drugs in his body were within prescribed levels when he died, the suit says.

Smith wouldn't have died, the lawsuit contends, if the VA had kept him in the hospital longer, sent oxygen home with him or provided a monitor to alert his roommates if his breathing stopped.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages but said Smith would have earned $60,000 a year for 30 years as a police officer.


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