The U.S. government has agreed to pay nearly $1.3 million to the widow of a veteran who fell to his death from the roof of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.Doctors and nurses admitted that they failed to place Jon Jacobsen, 50, in the Portland hospital’s locked psychiatric ward or give him antipsychotic drugs — even though he repeatedly talked about wanting to kill himself, said the widow’s attorney.
“They ignored him,” said Richard Rogers, who represented Lynette Jacobsen. “It’s an outrage that Mr. Jacobsen was treated the way he was.”
The case had been scheduled to go to trial this week in U.S. District Court. Instead, Rogers confirmed the settlement Thursday, Veterans Day, a day President Barack Obama paid homage to troops on a U.S. military base near Seoul, South Korea, by saying the government would care for them when they return home.
“The reality is the government does just the opposite,” Rogers said. “This case is the perfect example of how the U.S. government violates the rights of veterans at every step of the process.”
Gerri Badden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Oregon, said no one would comment until the case was finalized in a few weeks.
Jon Jacobsen, the father of boys now 12 and 14, served as a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Army from 1977 to 1979 in the 2nd Infantry Division and in the 2nd Armored Division in Korea. He had a long-standing seizure disorder, stemming from his military service.
On Feb. 3, 2007, he had an isolated psychotic episode. He seemed confused and wasn’t making sense, so his wife took him to Adventist Medical Center, where he became violent. Medical staff gave him anti-psychotic drugs, kept him in a secure room and observed him overnight. When he was feeling better the next day, they released him.
Two days later, he was again delusional, so his wife took him to VA Medical Center. Rogers said medical staff didn’t want to take responsibility for Jacobsen and refused to admit him to the secure psychiatric ward. Although a supervisor, who was called at home, ordered that Jacobsen be given antipsychotic medication, no one did. And no one sat with Jacobsen overnight, even though medical staff told his wife that someone would, Rogers said.
“He’s talking about how he wants to kill himself, he wants them to kill him,” said Rogers, who, along with attorney Patrick Block, negotiated the settlement on behalf of the family.
Hospital staff put Jacobsen in an unlocked room in the neurology unit, but he slipped out several times during the night because the nurses were too busy to watch him, Rogers said. Staffers caught him before he could escape the building and returned him to the room.
But about 6 a.m. Feb. 6, 2007, Jacobsen managed to elude a nurse and dash outside. He climbed a tree and onto the roof, where a hospital security guard and Portland police tried to talk him down over the next few hours.
Rogers said Jacobsen would walk over to the edge, then back away. Videotape shows Jacobsen standing next to the edge one last time, before he appears to fall off, Roger said.
Days after his death, Lynette Jacobsen received an anonymous package in the mail. It contained her husband’s medical records, and someone had written a note urging her to hire an attorney because the medical center had failed her husband, Rogers said.
Rogers said medical staff didn’t follow protocol for dealing with suicidal patients — written after the last time the medical center saw a high-profile suicide. Rogers said he acquired e-mails talking about that suicide and the steps the medical center took to prevent it from happening again, but he wasn’t able to learn when that suicide occurred or under what circumstances.
“The protocols not only weren’t followed, but the people attending to Mr. Jacobsen weren’t even aware of those protocols,” Rogers said.
From the get-go, Rogers said medical staff were candid about their mistakes in depositions. He faulted government attorneys for dragging out the case for more than three years.
In August, an attorney for the government agreed to settle the case for nearly $1.3 million, but Lynette Jacobsen has yet to receive any money, Rogers said. He said the widow really needs the money.
After her husband died, the veterans benefits he was receiving immediately ended. Her photography business folded. Rogers said Jacobsen and her two sons have been living off savings ever since. She is worried about losing her house and is living without heat to save money.