Crime and Justice

Hartford veteran sues over missed burn-pit cancer diagnosis at VA

This article by Anna Merriman was published by the Valley News on May 19, 2020.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Over four years and multiple consultations with physicians at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, combat veteran Wesley Black thought he had a diagnosis for his frequent abdominal pains and intestinal issues: a relatively simple bowel disorder.

Wesley Black, 33, has colon cancer after serving two with the Army overseas near garbage burn pits.
Wesley Black, 33, has colon cancer after serving two with the Army overseas near garbage burn pits. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

But a phone call from the VA one Friday afternoon in 2017, after he had gone to the emergency room with rectal bleeding, let him know that he was suffering from something far worse — it was an aggressive, and now terminal, form of colon cancer.

“I trusted the doctors,” Black, a 34-year-old Hartford firefighter, said in an interview Tuesday. “All the people I had spoken to for so long about signs and symptoms, no one decided to look into what I was saying.”

Early this month, Black; his wife, Laura; and their 4-year-old son filed a $17.5 million federal lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging that negligent medical care he received at the VA allowed his cancer to metastasize to his lungs and liver, and become terminal.

“I think if I had been diagnosed a lot sooner, my progress would have been a lot better,” Black said Tuesday, adding that he believes his cancer is now a “death sentence.”

Katherine Tang, a representative with the White River Junction VA Medical Center, declined to comment on pending litigation in an email Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed on May 7 in U.S. District Court in Rutland, and the VA has yet to file a response.

In the lawsuit, Black said he served with the Vermont Army National Guard and did two deployments, one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, returning to the states for good in 2010.

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For his service, he received the Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart, among other recognition.

While deployed, Black said, he was frequently exposed to “burn pits,” which the military uses to burn thousands of pounds of waste, including human waste, biohazardous materials and other chemicals, according to the lawsuit.

Though the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the negative effects of burn pit exposure are “temporary” and resolve after the exposure is gone, Black’s attorneys say that might not be the case.

“Studies have shown that the pollutants emitted from burn pits are causally linked to certain cancers, including colorectal cancer,” the lawsuit said.

Shortly after finishing his tours, Black started experiencing intestinal issues including chronic diarrhea, a 75-pound weight loss and cramps, the lawsuit said. When he went to the VA Medical Center, a doctor told him, “It sounds like IBS to me,” and gave him a plan of care for Irritable Bowel Syndrome that included an irritation cream and parasite test, the suit says.

The lawsuit said that doctors at the medical center didn’t issue any tests or order a colonoscopy “to rule out cancer or any other gastrointestinal condition,” before diagnosing Black.

When Black’s symptoms didn’t subside he went to the doctor again in the fall of 2014 and in 2016, but received the same diagnosis and no gastrointestinal tests, the lawsuit said.

Given Black’s exposure to burn pits, as well as “years of repeated complaints,” doctors should have ordered a colonoscopy and designed a better plan of care originally, his New York-based attorney Dan Perrone, said in an interview Tuesday. Black is also represented by Lebanon-based attorney Arend Tensen.

It wasn’t until 2017, when Black was taken to the emergency room of the VA Medical Center with rectal bleeding that doctors ordered a colonoscopy and found he had stage 4 colon cancer, according to the lawsuit.

Black said he trusted the doctors at the medical center and didn’t think to question their initial diagnosis.

“I just believed that the doctors knew better,” he said Tuesday. “I trusted that the VA would take care of me.”

Looking back, Black said, he realizes doctors didn’t ask him enough questions about his history and his symptoms, and that they treated his case like it was “no big deal.”

Dr. Thomas Abrams, a physician with the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston who ultimately assessed Black on a referral from the VA after his ER visit, wrote in a 2018 letter that his symptoms were early signs of cancer that developed as a result of the burn pit exposure.

“If further investigation had been done,” the cancer could have been detected sooner, Abrams wrote, according to the lawsuit.

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“I was very angry at a lot of things,” Black said of the months following his diagnosis. “I definitely felt let down.”

In February 2020, Black and his family filed claims for “negligent and wrongful acts” with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but their claims were denied for not being “timely,” according to the lawsuit.

The $17.5 million that he is seeking now is a total of what his family could have received had their claims not been denied, Perrone said.

Now, years after his diagnosis, Black is still undergoing chemotherapy and has taken on the task of warning others about burn pit exposure and testifying on behalf of legislation regarding the negative effects of open-air burning.

“I know I’m not the only one this has happened to, but I feel kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Black said Tuesday. But he added, “As long as I draw breath, I’m still in the fight.”

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