Veteran's widow fights government over blame for husband's death
Published Wednesday, October 2, 2013 10:00PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 2, 2013 11:57PM EDT
OTTAWA -- An Air Force widow says she felt “angry, sad … and betrayed” after new Defence Minister Rob Nicholson sent her a letter that appeared to overrule a decision of his predecessor that recognized her husband’s death was the fault of the military health system.
Cpl. Jacque Larocque, 40, collapsed and died in front of her eyes from a sudden heart attack in 2005.
Documents obtained by CTV News reveal that Cpl. Larocque suffered two heart attacks while he was in the Canadian Forces, including one while he was stationed at the top secret Camp Mirage.
Military doctors had diagnosed it as heartburn. Internal documents obtained by CTV News reveal the military knew mistakes were made and even admit Cpl. Larocque might have lived if he’d received “different management,” and more cardiac tests.
For years, Joan Larocque fought to have the Department of National Defence accept responsibility and admit it was to blame for her husband’s death.
In March, then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay sent Larocque a letter, obtained by CTV News, stating: “I confirm my determination that your husband’s death was attributable to military service.”
“This was music to my ears because finally, I will get some resolution,” Larocque said.
But in an exclusive interview, Larocque told CTV News she was stunned by an unexpected letter that arrived in August from Rob Nicholson, the current defence minister. The letter appeared to reverse MacKay’s decision.
According to the letter, obtained by CTV News, Nicholson says: “In the case of your husband, the Board of Inquiry concluded his death was not attributable to military service. This determination has not changed, even after higher-level review.”
“The support you think you are getting is almost like ripping your heart out all over again and throwing you away,” Larocque said.
The letter goes on to say that MacKay “considered the context and a broader set of criteria, not within the purview of an internal Board of Inquiry, including what appeared to be an inconsistency between VAC and CAF determinations.”
Larocque was stunned and wrote to the Minister, asking why MacKay’s decision was “no longer valid.”
There was silence from the minister’s office.
When CTV News contacted Nicholson’s office to ask why he had apparently overruled MacKay, his office sent an email stating the exact opposite.
“After a thorough review of Cpl. Larocque file in 2012, and consistent with the findings of officials at Veterans Affairs Canada, it was determined by the former Minister of National Defence that Cpl. Larocque death was service related. In Minister Nicholson's August 2013 response to Ms. Larocque, he agreed with his predecessor's determination.”
However, Larocque was surprised when informed of the email from Nicholson’s office. She said no one told her the MacKay decision stands or responded to her request to why Nicholson seemed to have changed the ruling.
CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife reported that senior generals inside the Department of National Defence were concerned that ruling Cpl. Larocque’s death service related could set a precedent.
Veterans Affairs recognizes Cpl. Larocque’s death as service related and even presented his widow Joan with the Silver Cross, an award reserved for widows of the war dead and those whose husbands have died as a result of active duty military service. Larocque says she cannot fathom how one department can say her husband died as a result of military service, while the other denies it.
Internal Government Documents
Government documents obtained by CTV News reveal that Veterans Affairs raised questions about Cpl. Larocque’s medical treatment while he was in the military. One internal document even asked if “any medical mismanagement” could be identified in his care.
Cpl. Larocque’s widow believes the military made mistakes that led to her husband’s death, overlooking key signs he was suffering from heart disease. She points a private insurance company, Canada Life, which refused to insure Cpl. Larocque after blood tests revealed his cholesterol levels were more than double the normal range at 10.4. Cpl. Larocque’s triglycerides were over three times the normal limit at 485.
A Canada Life insurance underwriter thought Larocque was simply too risky to insure noting, “in light of the above we are unable to offer the insurance requested.” She highlighted Cpl. Larocque’s medical history as problematic.
Jacques Larocque was so worried when he was turned down that he asked the insurance company to write to his doctor and explain the problem. Canada Life did so in a letter addressed to a military doctor at CFB Trenton, dated December of 1999, months after the military now believes he had his first heart attack.
Larocque’s widow says the military never told him the test results. An internal document obtained by CTV News written by CFB Trenton’s Wing Surgeon admitted Cpl. Larocque was never diagnosed or treated for any form of heart disease.
Both the Canadian Armed Forces and Joan Larocque say they only found out about Cpl. Larocque’s previous heart attacks as a result of the autopsy conducted in Indiana. Cpl. Larocque collapsed and died while on a family vacation in the U.S., and his widow says American authorities ordered an autopsy.
The autopsy reveals extensive arterial blockage missed by Canadian military doctors:
- Right coronary artery 100 per cent narrowed by plaque
- Circumflex Coronary artery 100 per cent narrowed by plaque
- Left anterior descending coronary artery 90 per cent narrowed by plaque
- Main left coronary artery 75 per cent narrowed by plaque
The autopsy concludes there was damage to Cpl. Larocque’s heart due to previous heart attacks, and attributes his death to “Sever Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease.”
Joan Larocque wants to know how it is possible the military missed the warning signs, even putting Cpl. Larocque back on duty while it is now believed he was having a heart attack.
Internal Military Panel Notes Oversights
An internal Board of Inquiry was convened to look into the circumstances of Cpl. Larocque’s death -- deemed a fact-finding mission that would determine whether his death was attributable to military service.
The Board of Inquiry report was completed on November 25th of 2005, determining that Cpl. Larocque’s death was not attributable to military service.
Yet the military panel noted several gaps in his care. It also stated the military did not conduct medical tests that would have likely revealed he was having a heart attack, instead misdiagnosing him with acid reflux. The BOI found that a simple flow sheet used in the civilian healthcare system to track medical history might have alerted the military doctors to Cpl. Larocque’s risk factors.
The panel admitted that postings to different locations and the resulting interruption in care were likely factors in Larocque failing to receive the necessary medical treatment and his subsequent death.
The panel states that Cpl. Laroque was a “very quiet and unassuming” person who likely wouldn’t make a stink for military doctors to check him further. The panel also notes that “a lack of continuity in care” and repeat postings were factors in his interrupted medical care.
The military board found that Larocque sought medical attention during January 1999 and July 2005, that “may have coincided with previous cardiac events noted in the autopsy,” but was misdiagnosed both times. The board notes Cpl. Larocque was never given a stress test, and did not have his cardiac enzymes or troponins checked stating that further diagnostic tests were ruled out because Cpl. Larocque’s symptoms were more consistent with gastro intestinal problems. The report states: “When questioned about the decision to conduct those tests, the medial personnel stated their index of suspicion for cardiac problems was not high enough to warrant it.”
Immediate changes to the military medical health care system are recommended by the military panel, changes that may have saved Cpl. Larocque’s life. The panel recommends the military alter its filing system to keep better track of Cpl. Larocque’s risk factors and medical history.
The board also calls for “increased vigilance for addressing cardiac risk factors” at a younger age, after noting doctors thought Cpl. Larocque was too young to be having a heart attack. In a sad twist, the Board notes that if Cpl. Larocque had lived just a few more months, his illness would likely have been caught at the more intensive standard medical exam the military gives soldiers at age 40.
Joan Larocque says that the Director of Military Casualty Support Management, Col. Gerry Blais, told her MacKay’s decision to overrule the Board of Inquiry and find Cpl. Larocque’s death the fault of the military, was historic.
A minister had never intervened before to change such a decision.
Mike Blais, President and Founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, has served as Larocque’s advocate throughout her ordeal. He says he was shocked by what he sees as a change in tune from the minister.
“It’s not acceptable that this man died due to negligence in service. He should be alive today. They have an obligation to this woman,” said Blais, who calls the incident an “outrage.”