When Lori Jolley entered the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego in 1986, she expected a routine appendectomy.
Instead, doctors removed her right Fallopian tube and ovary and, she says, released her with an open infected wound that failed to heal. Two weeks later, her appendix burst and she was rushed to a private hospital for emergency surgery.
Since then, Jolley, who was a Marine sergeant at the time, has endured a medical nightmare.
For eight years, she walked around with a hole in her stomach. The 32-year-old Pico Rivera resident says she nearly bled to death on a few occasions, saved only by emergency transfusions. Dozens of surgeries failed to close her gaping five-inch wound, leaving her 90-pound body crisscrossed by thick scars.
A top Navy medical investigator who studied the case concluded that doctors removed healthy reproductive organs and caused Jolley a "series of incredible complications." Even so, Jolley cannot sue the San Diego naval doctors because of a legal precedent that bars members of the armed services from bringing malpractice lawsuits against the government.
So on Thursday she filed a $30-million lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that after her discharge the Department of Veterans Affairs denied her disability payments and medical benefits, and that doctors at the VA's Long Beach hospital refused to treat her.
"The VA destroyed my life," Jolley said. "All I needed was proper medical care and they failed to give me that."
Doctors at the Long Beach hospital said they provided thorough care for Jolley. Records show that the hospital recommended tests and consultations with its doctors but that Jolley refused the treatment. Doctors also offered to admit Jolley on at least two occasions--including once when she arrived in blood-soaked clothes--but say she asked for referrals to private physicians.
"Her care was appropriate every time she walked into this medical center," said Dr. H. Terry Wepsic, the hospital's chief of staff. "We made repetitive appointments for her to come back to this facility," Wepsic said, "but she did not follow through."
Investigators from Veterans Affairs offices in Los Angeles and Washington who investigated claims Jolley filed against the VA say they found nothing wrong with the care she received.
Jolley served four years at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, working as an administrative clerk and earning the rank of sergeant by the time she was honorably discharged in 1987.
After her departure, she embarked on what would become a prolonged fight with the Navy and the VA over her condition. She says that Navy brass in Washington refused to change her honorable discharge to a medical discharge, an administrative status that would have guaranteed her veterans benefits and disability pay. Navy officials could not be reached for comment.
Veterans Affairs officials also refused initially to grant Jolley benefits or disability, saying her condition existed before her service in the military, internal records show. Jolley appealed several times and was eventually granted medical benefits and $2,386 a month from the government.
Meanwhile, Jolley alleges that she was turned away from the Long Beach facility after her discharge because she could not prove her condition was related to her military service. Jolley said doctors there told her to seek private care, and that after being refused treatment on three occasions she ended up in emergency rooms of private hospitals in need of blood transfusions. On other visits, she said, doctors offered only gauze dressings and pain pills for her bleeding wound.
"I can't believe that somebody could go in with a hole in their stomach and be sent away because they don't have the proper paperwork," Jolley said. "I personally blame them for the condition I am in right now."
Jolley said she has undergone three dozen operations by civilian surgeons to close her stomach wound, and that her condition has left her with severe anemia, abdominal hernias and infections. A Century City plastic surgeon succeeded in closing the wound in a procedure in June in which he replaced part of her abdomen with a muscle from one of her thighs, leaving her with a limp.
Jolley said she does not plan to sue the private doctors who operated on her over the years because they never offered guarantees of success. Nevertheless, the numerous surgeries have taken a toll: the once-athletic Jolley, who won awards for her softball abilities in the Marines, is now disabled and has not worked since her discharge. She relies on a roommate to drive her to doctor appointments, shop for groceries and perform household chores.
Jolley also has drained her savings and relied on Medicare and her family in Michigan to pay more than $150,000 in medical bills. She says she is about $40,000 in debt.
"The medical expenses kill me," she said. "Every time I get my head above water, here comes another surgery that's gonna cost $6,000 or $7,000. I never get ahead."
The San Diego Navy doctors have not commented publicly on Jolley's case, but the Navy investigator from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., recently investigated the first operation and issued a stinging report.
"We did this service member no favor, and it was this procedure which led to the subsequent series of incredible complications," wrote John D. Nash, head of the medical center's obstetrics and gynecology department.
"We did not serve her well either medically or administratively. As a result, she has suffered physically, emotionally and presumably, financially. Our house was not in order on this one."