PHOENIX - Inside Dr. Jacob Amrani’s office there aren’t many patients anymore.
On a recent afternoon, there were just two assistants and empty examination rooms.
“I have not had a paycheck in two-and-a-half years,” he said.
Amrani is a former Army doctor who says a routine shoulder surgery at the Phoenix’s Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center left him without full use of his arm. It’s now impossible to do most of the operations he practiced as a spine surgeon for the past 20 years, he said.
“That’s all gone now,” Amrani said. “I have no hope of ever getting back to that.”
Amrani has filed a lawsuit against the Phoenix VA. It’s a case that’s just one of more than 200 claims that have been filed against the Phoenix VA for wrongful death or injury since 2004.
But as a surgeon, Jacob Amrani is not your typical VA patient. And he said his case should serve as a warning.
“There are at least 40 families who have passed away waiting for appointments at the VA, I don't think they have any clue what is awaiting them if they should file a claim against the government,” he said.
“The surgery was performed on November 17, 2011. That’s the date that my life changed forever,” said Amrani.
During surgery to fix Amrani’s rotator cuff, a VA doctor discovered an unexpected tumor, records show.
“(The surgeon) should have stopped,” Amrani said. “He should have absolutely stopped, and he should have either closed and sewed me up or he should have sent a small piece of the tumor for a biopsy.”
That’s not what happened.
“He shelled out the entire (tumor) in one piece,” Amrani said.
When asked what he meant by “shelled,” he said, “That means he dug it out with his fingers and it’s kind of like trying to shell out an orange from its rind in one piece.”
First in Amrani’s claim and later in his federal lawsuit, Amrani claims he never gave the doctor consent to remove the tumor.
The ABC15 Investigators reviewed a consent form that was signed by both Amrani and the operating doctor before the surgery. Nowhere on the 6-page form does it discuss what to do in the event that a tumor is discovered.
After the surgery, Amrani said that his condition didn’t improve.
He said his concerns were dismissed as just weakness because he underwent surgery.
But Amrani went and got a second opinion and then a third and a fourth. Other doctors would find that the surgeon damaged an important nerve that was connected to the tumor, court records show.
“It was devastating,” Amrani said. “It took away my dominant hand.”
Hundreds of Claims
The national VA scandal has centered mostly on secret wait lists and backlogs. The level of care has received less attention.
The Phoenix VA is one of the very worst for patient mortality and infection rates, records and statistics show. From 2004 to 2012, there were roughly 200 claims of wrongful death or injury.
The VA declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, an official wrote that mistakes represent a very small percentage when compared to patient visits.
Records show that millions of dollars have been paid out for mistakes.
But out of those 200 claims, a majority were denied, including the one filed by Amrani.
LAWSUIT AND ALLEGATIONS OF MISCONDUCT
“I never expected to run into this buzzsaw after I was injured and filed my claim,” said Amrani.
One year after Amrani’s surgery, the VA denied a claim for economic damages.
In a letter, VA officials wrote, “we regret that Dr. Amrani suffered complications after surgery. However, our investigation found that VA providers did not negligently injury your client.”
Amrani then filed a lawsuit in federal court. It’s 18 months in and a trial date has not been set.
“I think I’ve been treated like crap,” he said.
One month ago, Amrani filed an official complaint with the Department of Justice accusing the assistant U.S. attorney handling his case of abuse, misconduct and waste.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
One of Amrani’s allegations was striking.
Before a deposition, Amrani claims that when the attorney was asked about the 40 patients who died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA, she responded that was “just job security” for her.
Amrani stands by the allegation and lists witnesses in his complaint.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous,” he said.
But Amrani said that’s not the worst part. His tumor was benign.
“This is what we refer to in orthopedics as a Christopher Columbus procedure. That’s where the surgeon didn’t know where he was, didn’t know where he was going and didn’t know where he’d been,” he said.