The U.S. Army has ousted the chief of one of its largest base hospitals, Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., after two young patients died after visiting the emergency room, the New York Times reported Tuesday evening.
The firing of Col. Steven Brewster and the suspension of his top three deputies comes amid the furor over treatment delays in the separate medical system serving veterans. Late Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a broad review to ensure that military patients — many of them active-duty service members and their families — are not facing similar problems.
“He wants to make sure that to the degree that we have any similar issues that we are aggressively going after them,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
The military said the review was ordered last week and was unrelated to the Fort Bragg situation.
Brewster had served as commander of Womack since July 2012 and was set to change command on June 18, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer reports.
He was relieved several weeks early at the behest of Col. Robert Tenhet, commander of Northern Regional Medical Command, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command.
The decision to relieve Brewster and suspend the deputy commanders for clinical services, nursing and administration was approved by Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, U.S. Army surgeon general and commander of the Medical Command.
Col. Ronald Stephens assumed command of Womack effective Tuesday, officials said. By Tuesday afternoon, Brewster's photograph and biography were missing from the Womack website.
According to a release, Brewster was relieved of his duties "to address the changes needed to maintain a high level of patient care."
"Investigations into these issues are ongoing, and further action will be forthcoming," officials said. "We assure you that the Army is committed to doing whatever is necessary to provide proper medical care to our soldiers and their families."
According to Defense Department officials cited by the Times, military health care leaders were concerned not only about the two recent deaths — now being investigated by the Army — but about problems with surgical infection control identified in March by the Joint Commission, an independent body that evaluates and accredits hospitals.
The first death at Womack involved Racheal Marie Rice, a 29-year-old mother of three who underwent a routine tubal ligation on May 16 and died the next morning, according to hospital staff. Within three hours of surgery, Rice, the wife of an active-duty soldier, returned to the emergency room, feeling ill.
Patients who return that soon after surgery are supposed to be placed on a triage list and seen quickly. But Rice waited for about two hours without seeing a doctor, then left to breast-feed her baby, who is about 6 months old, according to people familiar with the case. By the next morning, she was close to death. She was taken in an ambulance from her home back to Womack, where she died.
The second patient, a 24-old-year-old active-duty service member who could not be identified, visited the emergency room last weekend and received a diagnosis of tachycardia, a potentially dangerous condition involving an elevated heart rate, according to two people familiar with the case. He had recently been treated in Womack’s surgery unit for abscesses, but it was unclear whether that was related to his emergency room visit.
He was given medication, instructed to follow up with his doctor and released, according to one staff member. Why and where he died remained unclear on Tuesday.
Pentagon data shows that Womack, which performs more than 14,000 inpatient and outpatient surgical procedures a year, had a higher-than-expected rate of surgical complications from January 2010 to July 2013, the latest data available. In March, the hospital suspended all elective surgery for two days after inspectors from the Joint Commission found fault with surgical infection control procedures.
Brewster was a family physician specializing in preventative medicine when he took command of Womack, its $400 million budget and its nearly 4,000 employees - military and civilian - nearly two years ago.
Womack, which now has about 2,300 employees, has the busiest emergency department in the Army, officials have said, and the 163-acre site on Fort Bragg serves more than 160,000 eligible beneficiaries - the largest population in the Army.