Carol Merritt felt both intense pride and worry during the eight years of her son’s military service.
During Aaron Merritt’s three combat deployments, two as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, she’d sometimes glance at her home phone wondering when it would ring with dreadful news.
That call didn’t come and she felt she could finally breathe a sigh of relief when he was released from active duty in January 2014. But nine months later, on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2014, her husband visited her at work and with a broken voice told her that their son had died.
Aaron Merritt had gone to the emergency room of the Nashville Veterans Affairs Hospital seriously ill and was dead less than 24 hours later. He was 26.
Last month, the VA agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Lake Havasu City, Ariz., couple. The award is not an admission of fault.
Aaron Merritt was the victim of a lack of communication between doctors and a failure to adhere to basic medical procedures, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2016.
“He did three tours, one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, and made it home but he died instead under the care of the VA. It’s unimaginable,” Carol Merritt said last week. “He protected all these people. Who protected Aaron?”
The immediate cause of death was the acid content of his blood, septic shock, and low levels of red and white blood cells and platelets, according to the death certificate. But his family says the death was the culmination of a string of medical mishaps that could have easily been prevented, said Frank B. Thacher, the family’s lawyer.
“Aaron slipped through the cracks in something that was very simple as giving a blood test,” Thacher said. Our hope is the suit does affect some change in the VA. There’s no amount of money that can compensate Aaron for what he had to endure during the last moments of his life or what his parents lost.”
The VA did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Stars and Stripes.
Service and mistreatment
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a World War II veteran, Aaron Merritt enlisted in the Army after high school. He volunteered to become an EOD technician after his Iraq tour and then deployed twice to Afghanistan.
“He was just really a great kid,” his mother said. “In Afghanistan he was always getting everyone to laugh and tried to keep everyone happy while he was there. He told me joking that he ‘was having a blast.’”
He was twice awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor, including once for saving the life of an Afghan soldier, and he planned to use his military bomb detection knowledge in the civilian world working for the Transportation Security Administration. He was in the process of applying when he died, his parents said.
Military doctors had diagnosed him with ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease that causes inflammation and sores in the digestive tract and had put him on the drug mesalamine in early 2014, just before he left the Army. That May, VA doctors in Nashville treated him for the first time and added a prescription for azathioprine, an anti-inflammatory drug with side effects that suppress the immune system.
For months, however, VA doctors largely ignored the drug manufacturer’s recommendation of regular blood work, according to court documents, until the vital blood components needed to fight infection were so low, his blood had been poisoned.
Before being admitted to the ER on Oct. 27, 2014, Aaron Merritt sent an email to his doctor at the VA describing his symptoms, including flare-ups of the ulcerative colitis, high temperatures, and ulcers in his mouth that were making it painful to eat and drink.
“I’m also finding it difficult to keep food and water down,” he wrote. “I was wondering if this was something I should be seen for or if I could get new medications to treat this or improve my quality of life.”
He came to the ER with sepsis, a life-threatening complication of infection that doctors treating him at the time said “was likely due to bone marrow suppression caused by azathioprine.” He was sent to the intensive care unit.
By early morning the next day, he was critically ill and his red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets were all being destroyed by blood poisoning that was nearly impossible to treat because of his compromised immune system.
“Aaron coded four times,” court records state, referring to the number of times his heart or breathing stopped that morning. “During the fourth code, his body could no longer fight the overwhelming infection.”
Going to court
The family took up the fight for more information after his death, but the hospital administration would not release anything meaningful about his case, Thacher said. It was only after the late Arizona Sen. John McCain opened an investigation that the family was able to view the medical records.
Carol Merritt then spent nights and weekends going through his records for weeks, underlining doctor’s entries and making notes in the margins. To her, the evidence that her son hadn’t been treated properly was overwhelming.
“I could just see they didn’t have any blood work,” she said.
The couple sued for $6.1 million with the hope of learning more about how their son had died, to seek justice for his death and to raise awareness on how veterans are treated in the VA hospital system.
“There just needs to be changes at the VA, the way vets receive medical treatment,” Steve Merritt said.
The couple hopes that their efforts will help prompt change.
“How do you get justice for your son dying?” Carol Merritt said. “I guess we want to know when the VA will start being held accountable for the care and treatment of our veterans.”
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