Dr. William Kois, whistleblower who exposed poor treatment at Manchester VA, killed in car crash

  • Dr. William Kois stands outside the Manchester VA Medical Center in 2017. Kois died Tuesday in a car accident in Hampton. Monitor file

  • Doctor Ed Kois at the Manchester VA Medical Center on Tuesday, November 28 during an open house for Veterans. Kois says he hates when administrators and outsiders come to the Manchester VA like they did this week, showing charts and graphs for hours. He says he’s good instincts, an ability to cut through the fog, see the bigger picture. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Dr. Ed Kois speaks to the group of veterans and guests at the Sweeney Post 2 in Manchester on Monday, July 31, 2017 as Dr. Louis Levenson, left, looks on. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Dr. Ed Kois listens to Dr. Carolyn Clancy, a deputy Veterans Administration undersecretary during testimony Monday, September 18, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 7/24/2019 9:26:42 AM

One day two summers ago, under a broiling sun outside the Manchester VA Medical Center, Dr. William ‘Ed’ Kois displayed his rebellious-yet-noble personality.

Kois died in a single-car wreck – cause unknown – Tuesday on Interstate 95 in Hampton at the age of 62, but not before the Granite State, as well as the rest of the country, owed him a debt of gratitude.

His leak to the press exposed his employer’s substandard care of veterans. He had served as the central source among 11 whistle-blowers during the Boston Globe’s damning 2017 expose about dirty conditions and misdiagnosed cases at the Manchester facility.

Kois, who lived in Newburyport, Mass., said this incompetency had led to wheelchair-bound veterans, unnecessary pain, even death. So now it was my turn to speak with the good doctor, about a topic with ever-growing legs. National legs.

We met at the Manchester VA, Kois’s employer, but on this day, with a columnist and photo editor looking to advance the story, officials at the VA turned paranoid and pushy.

We were followed down to Kois’s office by a media-relations official, there to soften my line of questioning and shape the narrative. When Kois protested, we were asked to leave the building. Then, after finding a shady spot at a picnic table on the grounds, another official brought her sandwich outside and sat with us, with several open tables nearby, hoping, I guess, that we wouldn’t notice her eating.

We did. She was a plant for the hospital, prompting us to squeeze into my car, pouring sweat while waiting for the air conditioner to cool us off and talk about Kois’s decision to turn informant in the most public way possible.

“This is the biggest issue we can have, and that is the patients not being properly taken care of,” Kois told me as we cruised to nowhere down Manchester city streets.

Then he added, “Can you believe that woman just came over and sat down? What the (bleep)?”

Kois cursed a lot, and it quickly became clear that this doctor was unique in many respects. In fact, his look and fashion statements suggested this even before we met.

He wore mutton chops, a goatee and a ponytail, swore freely, attended medical school after being raised by a coal-miner-turned-boxer, and, I suspect, never met a necktie he liked.

He went by Ed, not William, certainly a stuffy name for someone as loosey-goosey as Kois. He spoke softly and gently, yet his laugh sounded like a sea lion’s bark.

He didn’t golf or belong to a country club. He was building a home in Littleton, off the beaten track, when I met him, and he restored a 1956 wooden boat, 37 feet long. He was an inventor, too, and had secured several patents.

And, like a counterculture figure questioning authority, Kois couldn’t take the incompetence of the VA brass and the disrespect aimed at those who had served. He had to say something.

Dr. Stewart Levenson once served as the Manchester VA’s Medicine Department chairman. More than anyone else, he was viewed as Kois’s main ally in this whistle-blowing operation. The two were close.

“Ed’s contribution to the improved care at the VA is beyond measure,” Levenson said Wednesday by phone. “His concern was for not only patients but veterans in general, and he regularly improved the lives of countless vets. He ignored the consequences and did the right thing.”

Kois shouted from the rooftops, desperate to expose this injustice. He granted interviews to anyone and everyone, forever trying to improve conditions. There were flies in operating rooms, dirty, blood-stained instruments, and diagnoses and treatments that were just plain wrong.

Record keeping between the Boston and Manchester VA programs failed to clearly show who needed surgery. A doctor named Muhammad Huq was found to be cutting and pasting notes in medical charts, meaning information remained unchanged for years.

Kois was the head of the VA’s Spinal Cord Clinic, and that spelled trouble for doctors treating patients with myelopathy, or severe compressing of the spinal cord.

While driving around steamy Manchester that summer day, Kois mentioned a veteran suffering from myelopathy who had had part of a tumor removed from his spine at a VA near Boston. Then he relied on the Manchester VA for subsequent checkups.

His pain returned, suggesting the tumor had returned as well. Yet visit after visit, year after year, complaint after complaint, the patient received vague responses with no sense of urgency and no imaging performed to see what was going on.

By the time Kois, who joined the Manchester VA in 2012, saw the man’s medical records and ordered the imaging process, the one that should have been ordered years ago, it was too late, reducing the veteran to a wheelchair and diapers.

That’s what Kois wanted people here to know. In fact, he wanted the nation to know, figuring that these problems occurred in other states as well. And once the story spread, two top Manchester officials were fired by federal investigators.

And now this, more shocking news, about the lead whistleblower, killed in one-car crash, who had seen enough injustice to reveal wrongdoing by the organization that paid his salary.

State police say Kois rammed his 2013 Porsche Cayenne into a metal guardrail while driving south on Interstate 95 on Monday at about 4:30 p.m. He was pronounced dead at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, and the authorities believe he may have suffered a medical emergency, causing the crash.

State Trooper James Powers was unavailable for comment.

Thankfully, Kois got the word out about what he had seen while working in Manchester, and I found a local example of the damage caused by this scandal.

His name was Jeff Sweeney and he lives in Concord. His truck, leading a convoy in Iraq, was destroyed by an IED, causing him severe back pain.

The Manchester VA recommended physical therapy and steroids. No relief there. Surgery in Boston didn’t help either, and Sweeney never learned what the real problem was, eventually losing his job with the Department of Transportation for missing eight months.

Enter Kois. He ordered imaging. He showed Sweeney a picture of his spine, with a screw penetrating a nerve, caused by the surgery in Boston and missed during checkups in Manchester.

Kois recommended more surgery. After a 14-hour operation to remove the screw, Sweeney walked with a nurse and felt great for the first time in years. He’s now part of a documentary called The Care They’ve Earned, an unflinching look at flaws in the VA system.

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s pain, while not gone, has been greatly reduced.

“I was shocked that I was walking,” Sweeney told me last September. “I’ll have contact with Dr. Kois for the rest of my life, if I can.

“Dr. Kois saved my life.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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