Pat Ahrens knew something was wrong. The night before, he had dropped his friend Chris Demopoulos off at a Plano motel, promising to return in the morning, but Ahrens wasn’t sure he had done the right thing.
The two had met at the Dallas veterans’ hospital and had bonded over their wartime experiences, the depression that followed and the troubling thoughts of suicide they could not seem to shake. Ahrens was discharged on January 22; Demopoulos checked out the next day, he then gave Demopoulos money for dinner and put him up for the night in a La Quinta Inn at 1820 N. Central Expressway in Plano.
But now it was morning, and Ahrens could feel that something was wrong. The night before he had called his ex-wife and told her he was worried Demopoulos might take his life. He raced across town, hoping his hunch wasn’t right.
When he arrived at the motel, he found Demopoulos hanging from the balcony. Plano police would later declare it a suicide. Three days later, Ahrens took his own life.
Family members of both men are blaming the Dallas VA hospital, putting a troubled institution back in the spotlight. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs ranked the hospital the worst VA facility in the country. Dallas VA spokesperson Susan Poff says the hospital has cleaned up its act since then, but family members of both men remain unconvinced.
In a statement, Poff expressed sympathy for the families of both men but insisted the hospital had followed procedures in admitting, treating and discharging both Ahrens and Demopoulos. Dawn Ahrens said Friday that her family had retained a lawyer and was considering suing the hospital for negligence.
Demopoulos says her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a stint in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. She says he kept chaotic, troubling journals documenting his spiraling depression. Things took a turn for the worse last fall when the couple engaged in a contentious dispute with Hill County officials over a piece of property.
On December 14, her husband entered the Waco VA facility following an attempted drug overdose; he was released six days later. After another suicide attempt on January 7, he was checked in to the Dallas VA, where he stayed for a week. His final stay in Dallas began late January 16, when he tried to kill himself using the electric cord from a coffee grinder.
In 2005, an inspector general’s report for the Department of Veterans Affairs ranked the North Texas Health Care System, of which the Dallas VA is a part, last among all veterans facilities in the country. Inspectors found floors and walls “had buildups of grime and the rooms had foul odors, suggesting they had not been thoroughly cleaned over a significant period.” They also found “dried residue suggestive of body fluids” on stretchers. The Dallas Morning News later reported that a paraplegic with bone cancer who required turning over every two hours had once summoned hospital staff for eight hours without a response. Finally, he used his bedside phone to call police, who arrived within minutes.
“In the time since, we’ve had a complete change in leadership,” Poff says. “All of our senior management positions have completely changed. There is a new emphasis on performance and safety. Things are different now.”
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