Durham County

Durham VA hospital changes its mind and will let this Vietnam vet stay. He had refused to leave.

Disabled Vietnam vet refuses to leave VA hospital

Officials at the Durham VA Medical Center have discharged James Donald Francis. But the disabled Vietnam veteran refuses to leave.
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Officials at the Durham VA Medical Center have discharged James Donald Francis. But the disabled Vietnam veteran refuses to leave.

On Monday, officials at the Durham VA Medical Center discharged a double-amputee who lost his legs after being stricken by the effects of Agent Orange-related diabetes that he contracted while fighting in Vietnam.

But the man wouldn’t leave the hospital. Instead, he camped out in the lobby of the facility’s patient entrance for 48 hours.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the VA reversed course. Sharonda Pearson, a VA spokeswoman, announced that James Donald Francis will be allowed to move back into the hospital’s community-based living center, at least momentarily.

“At this time, Mr. Francis will stay with us at the Community Living Center as we continue to search for a suitable solution that meets his health and social needs,” the VA’s statement said.

Francis is a 69-year-old U.S. Army veteran and Enfield native who – nearly 50 years after leaving Vietnam – spent most of this year fighting another battle with those charged with overseeing his medical care. He had been living at the center for more than three years until officials told him he was being discharged.

Pearson said Francis, who undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week at the VA hospital, no longer met the medical criteria for acute in-patient care.

Francis said when he returned to his room from dialysis on Monday, he found the door locked and his belongings stuffed in several bags.

“The police escorted me outside and told me that I was on my own,” he said.

Undaunted, Francis stayed in his motorized wheelchair at the patient entrance, wearing a pair of navy-blue pajamas and a Stetson hat with the words “Vietnam Veteran” emblazoned across the crown.

“I came here Aug. 17, 2014, and I signed up to be here the rest of my life,” Francis said. “I never asked for favors. All I ask for is what is due me. I lost half my body in the war and this is the thanks I get? They give me salt and call it sugar and tell me to put that in my coffee. I ain’t going to do it.”

Ronald Allen, a retired military veteran and disabled veterans advocate, helped Francis file complaints with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and with U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and Sen. Thom Tillis.

“From what I am told he has been a disruptive patient,” Allen said. “If voicing your opinion about the treatment that one receives is classified as a disruption to the operation, so be it.”

Allen said hospital administrators talked with Francis on Sept. 19 about arrangements for him to be transported to Concordia Transitional Care and Rehabilitation on Roxboro Road in Durham.

“He refused to go,” Allen said.

Honorably discharged

Francis is a gregarious, bespectacled man who worked as a mortician for more than 40 years. He graduated from high school in 1968. One year later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. He was honorably discharged in 1976.

Before diabetes took his legs, he enjoyed fishing. Now he likes listening to the blues and playing checkers.

He scoffed when told that the medical staff at the VA think his condition had improved for discharge from the place where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

Francis can’t bathe or dress himself. He cannot use a bathroom and someone must roll him on his side and place a bedpan underneath him so that he can relieve himself. He cannot get out of bed in the morning without assistance.

Francis said he “can’t endure assisted living.”

“Sharing a bathroom – I can’t even use a bathroom,” he said. “Why pay $3,500 a month for a bathroom and I can’t even use a bathroom?” I’d rather stay here and be treated as a human being, that’s all.”

Pearson said Francis is well-known by members of the VA medical staff.

“We have a long history with Mr. Francis,” she said.

In January, Francis was given a citation accusing him of misconduct toward a member of the nursing staff. He’s accused of telling the nurse who brought him a bed pan, “I don’t need the bed pan. I just want you to get in bed with me.”

Francis calls the allegation “garbage.”

He said he thinks the VA has a vendetta against him because he has complained about the level of care he has received at the medical center.

“Have I complained a time or two too loud? Yes,” he said in a complaint addressed to Dr. David Shulkin, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Have I become frustrated at not being taken seriously or having had my concerns addressed? Absolutely. Do bedridden, wheelchair-bound patients sometimes just become so overwhelmed with untruths, misrepresentations, no one willing to accept accountability or responsibility for the things that are done wrong to the point that one feels like they might explode? You betcha.”

‘A tough situation’

Early Wednesday, Pearson said the hospital staff was “working diligently” to find a solution.

“It’s a tough situation, and at this point the back story doesn’t even matter,” she said. “Who’s right and whose wrong doesn’t even matter.”

For Francis, the resolution he wanted was to be able to move back into the facility where he thought he would be taken care of until he dies.

“I want to be in the VA facility,” he said. “That’s what they built this facility for, disabled veterans. I’m a veteran. Give the veterans what the veterans require.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald