Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs' realization in late October that it might have an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that stemmed from its contaminated water system came a couple weeks too late for at least one Navy veteran.
William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton died Nov. 23 from the pneumonialike disease after entering the VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland on Nov. 1, his family said Monday at a news conference called to announce that the family was suing the VA.
"Based on information we've obtained, this death was very preventable," the family's attorney, Harry Cohen, said. "It appears as though the VA failed to properly maintain its water systems, despite recurring illnesses at the hospital and despite warnings from experts."
VA spokesman David Cowgill would not respond to questions about the family's filing of the civil claim.
The death of Nicklas -- who was hale and hearty before he got sick and still drove his own car, shopped and mowed his lawn -- shook the family and made them determined to seek answers, they said.
"He is my hero, and he will be sorely missed," his oldest son, Robert, 55, said.
His youngest son, David, 45, said his father had both Medicare and supplemental insurance and lived much closer to UPMC Passavant and could have gone there for his care instead of University Drive.
"But he trusted the VA would give him the best care, and unfortunately the VA betrayed that trust," said David Nicklas, who lives in Hampton and also served in the Navy. "I want every other veteran out there to know we're [filing a civil claim] so that every veteran never has to go through something like this."
The confluence of Nicklas' death with the VA's own in-hospital investigation of the Legionnaires' outbreak only added to the family's misery, David Nicklas said.
Nicklas was first admitted to University Drive in early October with shortness of breath. He stayed two days with instructions to follow up with his doctor, who later prescribed medication, a beta blocker. He took it, but it made him nauseated and dehydrated and he was readmitted to the VA on Nov. 1 and never left.
During most of Nicklas' first two weeks in the hospital in November, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a Legionnaires' expert at the University Drive hospital. The VA had asked the CDC for help confirming the outbreak, initially calling the CDC in late October.
On Nov. 16, the day before Nicklas' family was first told he was battling some sort of infection, the Pittsburgh VA publicly announced that four people had contracted Legionnaires' disease during stays at the University Drive hospital, and all of them had recovered.
It blamed the outbreak on the failure of a water treatment system, though the two researchers who originally had the system installed -- called copper-silver ionization -- contend the outbreak was due to the VA's failure to maintain and manage the system.
On Nov. 16, the VA immediately initiated water restrictions at the hospital that lasted two weeks, preventing anyone there from taking showers, washing their hands or drinking the water. It also began flushing out its pipes with chlorine to kill off Legionella bacteria.
Nicklas had been recovering until Nov. 17, when his condition began to deteriorate. The family was told he was suffering from an infection and the VA was having a hard time figuring out exactly what it was, even though the VA by then knew it had a Legionnaires' outbreak.
It wasn't until the evening of Nov. 21 -- when the family noticed the hospital's water fountains were taped off -- that the family was told by Nicklas' physician at the VA that he had contracted Legionnaires' disease.
He died Nov. 23, officially from a heart ailment.
But the VA physician who signed his death certificate included Legionnaires' disease as a secondary cause and the family was told "but for the Legionella, he would have been discharged," Mr. Cohen said.
About 8,000 to 10,000 people each year are hospitalized with the disease, but the CDC and other experts believe many more cases occur each year that go undiagnosed.
The civil claim that the Nicklas family filed Monday against the VA is known as a Form 95, which the federal government requires people to submit before any formal lawsuit is filed.
After filing Form 95, the federal government will have six months to investigate and respond and/or settle the claim before any lawsuit can be filed in U.S. District Court.
Nicklas married his wife, Greta, in 1953 and had three sons. He had five grandchildren. His wife has been devastated by her husband's death, Mr. Cohen said, and did not attend the news conference.
Among other activities, Nicklas worked with his son David and Hampton officials and veterans groups to erect a memorial to those who died serving in the military. That monument stands today in front of Hampton's community center.
Robert Nicklas of Gibsonia, said his father was such a patriot that every day "he'd put up his flag in the morning and take it down at night, and he was so proud of that."
The long period of time it took to tell the family that Mr. Nicklas had Legionnaires had an unintended consequence for one of his sons, Ken, 54, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn.
"I spoke to him days prior to his death and told him I would be coming home to see him over the Thanksgiving holiday," Ken Nicklas said in a statement, too devastated to speak at the news conference. "Once we were advised of him contracting the Legionella bacteria on November 21st, I changed my travel plans to come home a day earlier than expected, but once I arrived at the airport my brothers advised me of his death about two hours earlier. I never got a chance to see him, and that's devastating to me."
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.