Jamie-Lee Hasted had just hung up the phone after a conversation with her husband, retired Marine Lance Cpl. Hank Brandon Lee, and headed out to mail him a package of family photographs.
He would need them, she thought, because he was nearly 1,500 miles away from his home in Saucier, Mississippi, in the Brockton Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s psychiatric unit being treated for severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Later that day, she sent him a message on Facebook, but received no response.
“You going to call me anytime today or are you sleeping again!” she wrote.
Then, on March 4, she received a phone call from the hospital’s staff: Lee had been found unresponsive in his room and was later pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Medical Center. The father of three young children had overdosed on fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller, according to his death certificate.
How did the Mississippi Marine Corps veteran obtain and overdose on the drug under the VA’s watch?
Hasted said during an interview Saturday that she still doesn’t know five months later.
“They promised me this wouldn’t happen. I understand the issue, but he was on lockdown, and they’re supposed to protect him from harming others and from harming himself,” she told The Enterprise in an interview Saturday. “They made me believe that’s what they were going to do, and they didn’t.”
Pallas Wahl, a spokesperson for the VA, said Saturday that it is still not known how Lee acquired the drugs.
“Sadly, Lance Cpl. Lee was a victim of the opioid epidemic that kills nearly six people daily in Massachusetts,” Wahl said. “Lance Cpl. Lee suffered a fatal overdose of fentanyl while a patient at the Brockton campus. Fentanyl was not prescribed to any patient within our inpatient psychiatry unit, and Lance Cpl. Lee had no personal visitors during his inpatient psychiatry stay.”
Coping with trauma
Lee’s autopsy report and medical records obtained by The Enterprise show that he struggled with a history of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He served seven tours in Afghanistan as a mortarman, where he was injured by an improvised explosive device. The incident left him designated 100 percent disabled.
Hasted said that before she met him and before he began seeking help for his condition from the VA after his first suicide attempt, Lee had been using drugs and alcohol heavily to cope with the anxiety, depression and hallucinations that came along with it.
His medical records show that he had various drugs in his system when he was transferred from a local civilian hospital to the VA, which hospital records note he denied using and was believed to have consumed during a blackout period during the prior two days. He had blacked out before and ended up in Ohio years prior, he told doctors.
Lee told hospital staff during interviews that he had not been drinking recently, reporting “many months of sobriety” prior to his blackout, but used marijuana regularly to alleviate his anxiety.
In group therapy sessions, he appeared eager to turn himself around, at one point writing that he felt “triumphant” at the moment on a card during an exercise.
On March 4, VA records show, Lee had been under observation, with checks every 15 minutes, while in lock down. He was reportedly “fine” on his final check, but was found unresponsive and “slumped over” in his room by hospital staff about 5:30 p.m.
The call came into Brockton emergency responders as a cardiac arrest, according to police records.
Wahl, the VA spokesperson, said the ward Lee was staying in is locked, but it is “not a prison.”
“We do not perform searches of visitors, but we do require that they leave their belongings outside,” Wahl said. “Importantly, fentanyl is so potent that lethal quantities might be too small to detect on a search. All visitors must check in and wear identification badges.”
All patient belongings are searched upon intake, Wahl noted.
“Stable patients are able to leave the unit for scheduled medical appointments with one-to-one supervision by nursing and to go for supervised visits in our Recreational Center with one-to-five supervision,” Wahl said. “We only search patient rooms if there is cause for concern. We do not search for drugs upon re-entry, because appointments and recreational therapy are all conducted under close nursing supervision.”
The records note that Lee had told staff he was having a difficult time that day because it was close to the anniversary of his injury, and he’d used drugs and alcohol to get through it in the past.
During a phone call prior to the overdose, Hasted told staff that her husband sounded happier and seemed “closer to the man I fell in love with” while under their care.
Picking up the pieces
Now, Hasted said she’s now struggling to raise her children without their father and has been grappling with the VA to collect death benefits to help make ends meet and had to raise money to pay for his burial expenses.
“I’m left with the kids to pick up the pieces myself,” she said. “It’s been extremely stressful. I live my life for my husband and kids. I was his caregiver and now my best friend, my partner, is gone just like that.”
Rick Collins, the founder of Vets 360, an advocacy group, has been working with Hasted to find out exactly what happened.
“We’ve got questions about when did he take it? Was it a tablet, or a piece of a patch?” he said.
He said hospital staff told them they had no idea how Lee had obtained the drugs, and said he had been searched twice and closely monitored.
He said the hospital told him that it had stepped up surveillance and been using drug sniffing dogs since the incident.
Wahl said a review of the incident has been performed, but it is protected from disclosure under federal law. As a result, all visitors must now check in with facility police, the visitor’s room will get a camera, visitors will not be permitted during a patient’s first three days, and if a veteran is suspected to be at risk for seeking contraband, visiting privileges will be suspended. Frequency of random drug screenings has also been increased and completed visitors logs will be maintained for at least six months.
“We deeply regret every death from opioid overdose, and VA Boston has been a leader in trying to stem the opioid epidemic,” Wahl said. “Over the last two years, more than 100 opioid overdoses have been reversed by prescribing nasal naloxone to veterans with opioid use disorder, equipping VA police with naloxone, and placing naloxone in automated electronic defibrillator cabinets on hospital grounds.”
A Go Fund Me page has been set up to help Hasted with expenses.