Thousands of veterans in Middle Tennessee rely on the VAeterans Administration health system for their medical care.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates has discovered equipment problems at the Nashville VA Hospital has forced the facility to cut way back on the surgeries it's performing.
While Tennessee has one of the fastest-growing veteran populations in the country, the VA hospital here is having trouble handling all that growth -- and one veteran fears it's putting lives in danger.
Ted Butler served in the Philippines, in Okinawa, Japan, and the Caribbean. He gave nine years of his life to the Marines.
But the Hartsville veteran is frustrated and his wife is angry.
“I'm just livid about it,” Connie Butler told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
They said doctors at Nashville's VA Hospital told them back in March that Ted needed double bypass surgery right away to fix two blocked arteries. He was admitted and set to have surgery two days later, but then suddenly the operation was cancelled.
Butler was sent home with explicit directions to take it easy.
"Could you go back to work," we asked Butler.
"No," he replied.
"I would have a heart attack. Might,” Butler explained.
He was told his heart bypass would be rescheduled as soon as possible. But, more than a month later, he's still waiting.
His wife is afraid.
"If he has a heart attack or that bursts in there, if that were to burst, he'd die immediately," she stated.
The problem? The number of surgeries here in the last two years has grown significantly, but the equipment hasn't been able to keep up -- namely, the hospital's two sterilizer machines that are used to clean the instruments after each surgery.
As the head of the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, Jennifer Vedral-Baron is in charge of the hospital.
"I need to feel confident that it [the sterilizer] is going to work every day but given what we've seen over the last six months, I don't necessarily know that," she revealed.
"You don't trust it?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"Personally, I don't trust it," she admitted.
In fact, hospital records show one of the machines has been serviced nearly three dozen times in the last year. The other one has also needed repeated repairs.
Every time one of them breaks down, administrators admit the hospital suddenly has more surgical instruments to clean than it can handle.
So last month, the hospital chief ordered an immediate slow-down – cutting the number of surgeries performed by half.
They dropped from an average of 140 surgeries a week down to just 70 surgeries a week.
"There's nothing we're not doing right now. We're just doing less of them," Vedral-Baron said.
She insisted that veterans' lives have never been in danger. She said the hospital is still doing emergency operations, but putting off elective surgeries.
And in many cases, veterans are being allowed to go outside the VA system for their operation.
But the Butlers said Ted wasn't given the option to go to another hospital until just recently, after several weeks of anxiously waiting and repeatedly calling the VA for updates.
"'You're going to be on a waiting list because we can't get our equipment fixed,'' Connie Butler recalled being told. "I don't understand that!"
It turns out though that the sterilizer was repaired nearly a month ago, but the hospital still is just doing a limited number of surgeries.
"What I've said is let's not stress that system. It's very conceivable it could break down again tomorrow. I don't know," Vedral-Baron explained.
So this is where you're probably asking why doesn't the hospital just get new sterilizers?
Apparently, the hospital had been asking for them for a while but only got emergency funding approved in December.
Because of government contracting rules, the hospital couldn't just run right out and immediately buy them.
Vets and their families said they feel the VA has let them down.
"I don't understand how you can tell somebody we cannot do surgeries," Ted Butler exclaimed.
"Some say these veterans earned this medical care and they say they deserve more," NewsChannel 5 Investigates said to the hospital's top administrator.
"They do! You're absolutely right!" Vedral-Baron replied. "I wish I could do a hundred percent of our veterans every day. I do. But, I also need to think of patient safety and what is the right thing. "
So when will this all be fixed?
Not any time soon. The first of the new machines isn't set to arrive until the end of next month. The other won't be ready until late October.
The VA expects they'll be under this surgery slowdown until at least the end of May.
As for Ted Butler, he has now been referred to Vanderbilt and will be having his heart surgery next week.