Allison Park resident identified as Legionnaires' disease victim
Relatives of a VA hospital patient who died of Legionnaires' disease plan to bring a legal claim against the federal government, demanding an explanation of conditions in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, their attorney said on Monday.
World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton died Nov. 23 at the VA's University Drive Campus in Oakland two days after the VA told his family that he contracted the respiratory disease, his sons said. They said Nicklas had been in the hospital since Nov. 1, when doctors admitted him for dehydration upon a VA visit in October.
“He looked at the VA as a place where he could go and receive the best care in the world. He felt honored to go there and seek treatment along with other veterans,” said son David Nicklas, 45, of Hampton, who appeared with his brothers, Ken and Robert, at a Downtown news conference. It was the first time anyone identified the only confirmed death from a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the hospital.
“He trusted that the VA would give him the best care, and unfortunately, the VA betrayed that trust,” David Nicklas said.
He believes his father represented the fifth Legionnaires' case in a hospital outbreak the VA first reported on Nov. 16, he said. VA officials announced the fifth case on Nov. 22, a day before William Nicklas died.
The Allegheny County Health Department announced on Nov. 30 that someone died from the outbreak.
The VA declined to comment Monday on pending litigation.
“Based on information we have obtained, (Nicklas') death was very, very preventable,” said Harry S. Cohen, a Downtown attorney representing the Nicklas family. “The Oakland VA facility apparently failed to maintain its water systems despite recurring illnesses, despite warning from experts.”
Cohen said the family “thinks it's very important to draw attention to this matter” and prevent other deaths. He notified the government that the family intends to proceed with a claim against the department under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
Although the effort would be classified as a monetary claim, Cohen said, relatives are not seeking a specific amount. They want to force an explanation for circumstances surrounding the death and to correct the system so “this doesn't happen to any other veterans,” Cohen said.
He said the federal government would have six months to investigate and respond to the claim before his firm could file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. Cohen confirmed the Nicklas family had communication with the VA during the weekend but declined to discuss details of that contact.
The VA has fallen under scrutiny from federal elected officials, several of whom have pushed the department for answers. Last week, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said even he had grown frustrated with just trying to connect with VA officials, and he urged them to communicate better with veterans.
Survived by his wife, Greta, and five grandchildren, William Nicklas was a joyful patriot who served in the Navy for two years before an honorable discharge in May 1946, his sons said. He returned to Western Pennsylvania, where he started an auto body shop in Glenshaw and maintained good health before falling sick in early October, David Nicklas said.
He said more than 100 people turned out for a memorial service during the weekend, when his father would have turned 88.
“Every day, he would put the flag up in the morning and took it down at night,” said Robert Nicklas, 55, of Gibsonia. “He was so proud of that.”
Four patients in the Legionnaires' outbreak recovered from the waterborne disease, a form of pneumonia linked to bacteria in tap water at the Oakland and H.J. Heinz VA facilities. Spokesman David Cowgill said last week that an investigation involving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was ongoing.
Four workers at the Oakland hospital also developed respiratory problems and were being tested for a possible Legionnaires' connection, according to their union.
The death of another Oakland VA patient, John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles raised questions for his son, John R. Ciarolla, 57, of Irwin. He said his father died at the VA in July 2011 as a consequence of pneumonia.
“At this point, I'm not going to rush to judgment,” Ciarolla said. “I know something doesn't smell right. It smells lousy. But I don't know enough yet.”
The CDC may release its findings in a month.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.