Family Sues After Alzheimers' Misdiagnosis

The family of a man who committed suicide after mistakenly being told he had Alzheimer’s disease has filed a $60 million wrongful-death complaint against the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jack Ellis went to the VA Medical Center in Salem after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997. In March 1998, Ellis and his wife, Claudine, were talking to a psychiatrist before Ellis started some experimental medication. The doctor told Ellis that his Alzheimer’s disease was going to get worse. He told Ellis he would soon forget his family and that he shouldn’t drive home.

It was the first time the Alzheimer’s diagnosis had been mentioned to Ellis or his wife. Claudine Ellis told her daughter the news.

“I’ll call the doctor and set it straight,” Debbie Painter said. She planned to call the doctor the next morning.

She never got to make that call. Instead, she got a call that morning from her mother that her father shot himself in the head. Ellis died three days later when the wound became infected.

An autopsy performed two years later showed that Jack Ellis did not have Alzheimer’s.

An earlier autopsy also showed that his lung cancer was not spreading and was at a treatable stage.

A Second ‘Jack Ellis’

A private investigator hired by the family discovered there was another Jack Ellis under care at the VA center, a Jack Ellis who was being treated for an advanced case of Alzheimer’s.

His Social Security number is almost identical to their Jack Ellis, the investigator told the family. Painter thinks somewhere, her father’s medical file was mixed in with this other Jack Ellis’.

Painter thinks that mistake made her father give up on life and kill himself. In March, she, her sister, Julia Ball, and mother filed their wrongful-death complaint against the VA.

Kathleen Oddo, regional counsel for the VA who is handling the case, said the Ellis case is being reviewed and that she expects a decision within a few weeks. Once that report comes back, one of three things can happen, Oddo said.

The VA can accept the claim and settle it or deny it. If it is denied, the family can ask the VA to reconsider the decision or take the case to federal court. All complaints have to go through this initial phase before a case can move forward.

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