Kelli Grese and her twin sister, Darla, were Navy veterans. Kelli committed suicide by overdosing on a powerful antipsychotic medication on Veterans Day 2010.
Darla Grese, of Virginia Beach, filed a malpractice suit against Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center, seeking $5 million. The trial was scheduled in Norfolk in April 2013.
Just weeks prior to the scheduled trial, Grese and the U.S. government reached a settlement. If a judge approves the deal, the government will pay Grese $100,000.
It was not about the money. Grese hopes that publicity about this case will draw more attention to the treatment and care of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, both of which her twin sister battled.
In a single year, Grese said in an interview, doctors at the Hampton facility prescribed 5,370 Klonopin pills, used to treat anxiety disorders, to her sister.
That was in addition to thousands of doses of other medications, including antipsychotics, sedatives and antidepressants prescribed on a regular basis.
“The numbers are astounding,” Grese said.“ After all the hours spent going through her records, I still shake my head at it.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment.
Grese said she repeatedly tried to intervene on her sister’s behalf, asking doctors to stop prescribing Seroquel after Kelli tried to commit suicide three separate times over an eight-month period with the drug in 2010, court documents show. Seroquel is prescribed for the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Kelli is described in court documents as having suffered from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As we reported a few months ago, the lawsuit also claimed that the medical center’s doctors were aware that the woman previously tried to kill herself on multiple occasions, yet they still increased her access to the drugs.
The Grese twins were inseparable during their short life. They joined the Navy together after a recruiter visited their high school. The Navy respected the sisters’ desire to stay together; they went to boot camp together, shared every deployment and made every promotion together. While they were stationed at the Navy hospital in Naples, Italy, they shared a house off base.
On the last night of their tour in 1995, a burglar ransacking their bedroom awakened them. Although they were unharmed, they were both traumatized by the incident, as Darla recalls. As a result, Kelli was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1996. On the basis of that, combined with her frequent migraine headaches, she was found to have an 80 percent service-connected disability. The twins left the Navy in 1997 after six years of service.
That was the beginning of a 13-year downward spiral as Kelli sought help from VA doctors for many complaints, including insomnia, anxiety and depression.
Her twin, Darla, watched her deteriorate after noticing 12 different doctors had prescribed as many as 25 different medications. In addition, Kelli consulted outside doctors, who prescribed, still more drugs.
Darla stated that early on, she went to speak to the Chief of Staff at the VA center and told him, “You’re killing my sister with all these pills.” Nothing changed. She said that prescription drugs continued to arrive at Kelli’s door.
Kelli was becoming increasingly paranoid. She thought her phone was being tapped, that her home was bugged, that people were following her and were out to get her. She had nightmares and flashbacks. She said that she heard voices in her head telling her to harm herself.
The diagnoses kept coming: major depressive disorder; abuse of prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco and marijuana; bipolar disorder. With each diagnosis, more medications came.
In March 2010 while waiting to see a doctor at the VA, Kelli took a whole bottle of Seroquel and was admitted to the intensive care unit with an acute overdose.
Two months later, she tried again. She was found in the back seat of her car on the side of the road, unresponsive. Rescue workers broke into the car and took her to the emergency room.
The third overdose occurred two weeks after that, during a visit with her mother in Pittsburgh.
On October 10, 2010, according to court papers, she told her VA doctor she was planning a return visit to Pittsburgh and didn’t want to run out of Seroquel. At her request, her doctor gave her a two-month prescription, instead of the usual one-month amount. The next day, when she picked up the medicine at the VA pharmacy, they told her it was being mailed to her. She went back to her doctor and explained that she couldn’t wait, was leaving town and asked for another prescription for a two-month supply. The doctor complied. She never made the trip to Pittsburgh. She then had a quadruple supply of Seroquel, most of which she ingested on November 11, 2010, Veteran’s Day, at her home in Virginia Beach.
Her twin, Darla, said, “Kelli was very patriotic, which I think is why she killed herself on Veteran’s Day.” Darla said that she is not angry with her for what she did, because, “addiction is a disease – a disease that people don’t want to talk about. But people need to talk about it.”
This is a tragic story that never should have happened. Kelli was diagnosed with mental health issues for which she was given a strong drug known to have suicidal side effects. Especially after three attempts at suicide and her sister pleading with the head doctor to stop prescribing so many medications, still, she was able to obtain four times the quantity she should have had. Now Darla has to live her life without her twin.
Although the government does not acknowledge liability or take responsibility for Kelli Grese’s death in the settlement, the agreement sends a message.
Grese said she’s confident the case would have succeeded in court. “On a personal level, I really wanted to go to trial,” she said.
But the bottom line was never about the money, Grese said, and now the healing process begins. She is going to take some time to figure out how to help other veterans, or their caregivers, worried about medication for psychiatric ailments.
Grese believes that the many drugs her sister took actually made her feel more anxious and fearful, something that led to her being diagnosed with additional conditions which required even more medications.
“At the end of the day, I don’t have my sister anymore, but I have her story,” Grese said.
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