MIAMI (CBSMiami) — In February, a cardiovascular surgeon at the Miami VA hospital complained to one of his superiors that “patients had died” because a piece of equipment that might have saved their lives was left in a Broward warehouse, according to an email obtained by CBS4 News.

The February 27 email was sent by Dr. Tomer Karas to the VA’s chief of surgery Dr. Seth Spector. In the email, Karas complained about a device known as the TandemHeart – which keeps blood following during certain sensitive procedures.

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“It is my understanding that the TandemHeart has never been used here because of a nursing administration issue,” Karas wrote. “I am not clear on what the issue is but I believe it has to do with concerns over competency and training.”

In his email to Spector, Karas went on to relay a conversation he had with a VA cardiologist, Dr. Carlos Alfonso.

“In discussions with Dr. Alfonso,” Karas wrote, “I understand that patients have died in our cath lab due to inability to offer a higher level of support … even while the TandemHeart was physically available.”

Karas then added: “I am told the TandemHeart currently resides in a warehouse in Broward.”

The Karas email does not state how many patients may have died or when those deaths occurred.

Karas made clear he was writing the email because he wanted the hospital to purchase a similar piece of equipment. “But I wouldn’t want to support acquiring this device if there is any chance it would have the same fate as the Tandem Heart,” he concluded.

Spector, the chief of surgery responded the next day by simply writing: “I will address”

Reached by phone, Karas acknowledged writing the email but said VA policy prevented him from speaking without the approval of his superiors.

The VA’s public affairs office then refused to allow Karas to answer any questions. They also refused the station’s request to speak to doctors Spector and Alfonso.

CBS4 News requested interviews with the hospital’s chief administrator, Paul Russo, and its chief of staff, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro – those requests were denied as well.

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Shane Suzuki, a public affairs officer for the VA, responded to CBS4 News in an email. He said the allegations contained in the email were being investigated.

“The physician quoted in the email has admitted that he was incorrect in his assertion that any patients have died,” Suzuki wrote. “There have been zero deaths related to the TandemHeart equipment.”

Asked to clarify which physician in the email he was referring to – Karas or Alfonso – Suzuki refused to say.

CBS4 News then asked to speak to the physician who supposedly recanted his statement about patient deaths, but Suzuki refused that request as well.

Suzuki did acknowledge that “training on the equipment was approved three weeks ago to ensure staff competency before using the machine for appropriate elective procedures.”

Suzuki refused to say why training was only taking place now, since the TandemHeart had actually been purchased in 2012.

The allegation of possible patient deaths in Miami comes as the VA is reeling from a nationwide scandal over waiting lists and patient care.

“We at VA are committed to consistently providing our veterans the high quality care, timely benefits and safe facilities necessary to improve their health and well-being,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told members of Congress last week. “Any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct are taken seriously.”


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Jim DeFede