A visitor leaving a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in California. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)
When American soldiers bathe in Iraq, where a grimy film coats every surface, they are reminded by bathroom signs not to ingest anything that comes from the tap.
So when Christopher Wilson left the Army after two tours in Iraq and sought medical care for his service-related injury at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he expected a cleaner environment than what he encountered at a VA clinic in Salt Lake City on April 5.
Wilson was shocked by what he found inside a clinic room during his appointment, he told local media: an overflowing trash can, medical instruments strewn about on the counter and a filthy sink. He snapped photos of what he saw.
Those photos rocketed across social media Friday, prompting an apology from the hospital system’s chief of staff and triggering an investigation.
“I figured that they would say, ‘Oh, this room is not clean,’ and take me somewhere else, but they just kind of blew past it, didn’t acknowledge it,” Wilson told CBS affiliate KVFS, adding he was at the clinic for treatment of his ankle. His father, Stephen Wilson, posted the pictures to Twitter on Friday, and described the environment as “unprofessional, unsanitary and disrespectful,” calling on President Trump to get involved.
The fallout comes amid a cascade of problems and controversies at VA. Trump has vowed to strengthen the agency, but it has been beset by numerous leadership vacancies, including VA secretary and a permanent undersecretary for health who are tasked with overseeing VA’s sprawling network of 1,243 medical facilities.
Karen Gribbin, the chief of staff of VA’s Salt Lake health-care system, told KVFS she has launched a probe into the incident and will review procedures with staff.
“I was taken aback by the condition of the room. The patient, Mr. Wilson, should not have been placed in the room in that condition,” Gribbin said, apologizing for the incident.
Wilson’s photos appear to be of a clinic room meant for creating and applying casts and not procedures such as injections, Gribbin told the Deseret News. She struggled to explain why Wilson was placed in the room, and what procedures are in place that detail how and when rooms are cleaned in between patients.
Gribbin, who oversees all VA medical operations in Utah, eastern Nevada and southeastern Idaho, called the incident a “rare event” and said Wilson was not exposed to blood or bodily fluids from other patients.
But, she said, “I do not want another veteran to experience this.”
Her office and VA’s Salt Lake heath-care system did not immediately return requests for comment.
VA care has consistently been rated as good or better in comparison with private health care.
But scandals within the agency have often been related to how long veterans wait to get access and how they are received by staff. In 2014, a systemic crisis involving long wait times led to former VA secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation.
Veterans have long been frustrated by a perception of apathy at VA facilities.
“The people who are there to serve us kind of see us as a hindrance more than anything. We don’t seem to be a priority,” Wilson said. He and his father could not be immediately reached for comment.
Wilson said he hoped attention on the issue would help, but also expressed skepticism about what Gribbins and VA can accomplish with the probe.
“It just feels like I’m beating my head against the wall sometimes with them,” Wilson told KVFS. “If you had the choice, would you go there? I wouldn’t. I don’t like going there.”