Pat Ahrens knew something was wrong.
The night before, he had dropped his friend Chris Demopoulos off at a Plano motel, promising to return in the morning, but Ahrens wasn't sure he had done the right thing.
The two had met at the Dallas veterans' hospital and had bonded over their wartime experiences, the depression that followed and the troubling thoughts of suicide they could not seem to shake. Ahrens was discharged on January 22; Demopoulos checked out the next day, and when he didn't have a ride home to Hillsboro, Ahrens offered to take him the following morning. He then gave Demopoulos money for dinner and put him up for the night in a La Quinta Inn at 1820 N. Central Expressway in Plano.
But now it was morning, and Ahrens could feel that something was wrong. The night before he had called his ex-wife and told her he was worried Demopoulos might take his life. He raced across town, hoping his hunch wasn't right.
When he arrived at the motel, he found Demopoulos hanging from the balcony. Plano police would later declare it a suicide. Three days later, Ahrens took his own life.
Family members of both men are blaming the Dallas VA hospital, putting a troubled institution back in the spotlight. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs ranked the hospital the worst VA facility in the country. Dallas VA spokesperson Susan Poff says the hospital has cleaned up its act since then, but family members of both men remain unconvinced.
"We blame them 100 percent," says Dawn Ahrens, Pat Ahrens' ex-wife. "We begged them not to discharge him, because we knew he was a danger to himself or others, and they wouldn't listen. If they'd listened to us—and we're not even the professionals here—Pat would still be alive."
In a statement, Poff expressed sympathy for the families of both men but insisted the hospital had followed procedures in admitting, treating and discharging both Ahrens and Demopoulos. Dawn Ahrens said Friday that her family had retained a lawyer and was considering suing the hospital for negligence.
Cordelia Demopoulos says she also is considering a lawsuit. When she learned that her husband had committed suicide, she expressed her grief on YouTube, in a teary video in which she blasted the Dallas VA, the United States for its treatment of vets and the "freaking stranger" who picked her husband up from the VA and left him alone at a motel. The video can be found on the Dallas Observer's blog Unfair Park, which first reported on the story January 30.
Once Demopoulos learned Ahrens' story, her rage for the "stranger" who had picked up her husband dissipated. Her anger at the VA hospital, however, is boiling over.
"My husband is dead because of the negligence and cowardly way the VA deals with their veterans," Demopoulos says. "I want the world to know what they did to my husband."
Demopoulos says her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a stint in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. She says he kept chaotic, troubling journals documenting his spiraling depression. Things took a turn for the worse last fall when the couple engaged in a contentious dispute with Hill County officials over a piece of property.
On December 14, her husband entered the Waco VA facility following an attempted drug overdose; he was released six days later. After another suicide attempt on January 7, he was checked in to the Dallas VA, where he stayed for a week. His final stay in Dallas began late January 16, when he tried to kill himself using the electric cord from a coffee grinder.
It was during this time that Pat Ahrens and Chris Demopoulos met. According to Dawn Ahrens, the pair and two other vets met at the hospital and became friends. Ahrens says her ex-husband told her all four were suicidal and that during their time at the hospital they talked about their desires to kill themselves.
Dawn Ahrens says she and one of her ex-husband's daughters visited the psychiatric staff at the VA in the days before Pat Ahrens was released, begging them to not let him go.
She says that when her ex learned of Demopoulos' death he felt personally responsible. She assured him that wasn't the case; he had only tried to help Demopolous by offering him a ride home, giving him money for dinner and putting him up for the night in a motel.
On January 26, Pat Ahrens called his ex-wife at about 12:30 a.m. "He sounded kind of drunk, and I told him he shouldn't be drinking with his medicine," she says. "He told me he was fine. We had a landscape business together, and he told me he had done some estimates that day and left them in my mailbox. The next morning when I went out to get them I found a goodbye letter."
After hours of frantic searching, Ahrens and other family members found the 50-year-old. He had pulled his truck into their shared storage facility, Dawn Ahrens says, and had then ingested enough pills to kill himself. When he was found, he still had a pulse, but he was dead within minutes.
"If there is anything good that comes out of his death, it is that people will know how bad our country takes care of its veterans," Dawn Ahrens says. "The Dallas VA would do the bare minimum and then just send him home."
Ahrens says that on several occasions the VA sent her ex-husband home with only a bag of medications and a plan for follow-up visits. When she would try to reschedule, she says, they would tell her there weren't any openings for six months.
Citing patient confidentiality laws, Poff says she could not comment on the specifics of either case. But according to the hospital's policy, veterans deemed a suicide risk are admitted immediately. "All other veterans can be seen on the same day of their request for an appointment or will be given an appointment within 30 days if that is preferred by the veteran," Poff said in a statement. Patients who are "at an immediate risk of suicide, aggression or dangerous withdrawal" are not released from the facility, the statement reads.
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In 2005, an inspector general's report for the Department of Veterans Affairs ranked the North Texas Health Care System, of which the Dallas VA is a part, last among all veterans facilities in the country. Inspectors found floors and walls "had buildups of grime and the rooms had foul odors, suggesting they had not been thoroughly cleaned over a significant period." They also found "dried residue suggestive of body fluids" on stretchers. The Dallas Morning News later reported that a paraplegic with bone cancer who required turning over every two hours had once summoned hospital staff for eight hours without a response. Finally, he used his bedside phone to call police, who arrived within minutes.
"In the time since, we've had a complete change in leadership," Poff says. "All of our senior management positions have completely changed. There is a new emphasis on performance and safety. Things are different now."
Dawn Ahrens wonders if much has changed at all. She says when her husband was discharged from the VA, he was never given anything other than a bag of medications.
"There were no instructions on what to do, when we should bring him back, nothing on what to do in case of an emergency. It was just a big bag of medicine and see you later," she says. "It's too bad, because now he's gone."