DALLAS -- In 2004, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dallas ranked last in the nation among all VA hospitals.
While local officials claim vast improvements have been made, patients - American veterans - continue to complain that poor quality care at the Dallas VA is actually putting lives at risk.
"Yeah, it was like, they didn't care,” said Army veteran Marilyn Ward of Kerens, Texas, “And I was afraid to leave, because I knew if I left, I was going to die."
Ward recalled her nightmare last year waiting at the Dallas VA Hospital for treatment for stomach pain. She said she was being tended to by an unsympathetic doctor, despite her agony.
“It was like a grabbing, gut-wrenching pain and every time I'd start to throw up, it would just gut wrench and I just thought, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' and cry,” Ward said. “He kept telling me, 'This is all in your mind, there's nothing wrong with you.'"
But there was something wrong. Ward, it was later determined, had an obstructed bowel that had gone septic. She believes it was brought on by a botched stomach surgery a few months earlier at the same hospital.
Another veteran, Jennifer Villareal of Ennis, told News 8 of showing up to the Dallas VA Hospital with chronic constipation. She said after she was admitted, she was told she needed surgery for something else.
"They took out my ovary, my fallopian tube and my appendix," Villareal said.
After the surgery, she was still sick and in pain and was basically told to leave the hospital -- that doctors had done for her all they could do. Villareal then went to a local doctor who diagnosed her with colitis.
“All they would have had to give me was antibiotics and steroids, and that would have cleared it up,” Villareal said. “I was pretty upset."
They are just two of the more than 100,000 patients currently being treated at the VA Hospital in Dallas. It is the second-busiest in the nation.
But in 2004, it was ranked by Inspector General as the worst in the nation.
Deficiencies were listed in several high-risk categories. Eighty percent of all quality indicators in the survey fell below the fully satisfactory level.
Chief of Staff at the Dallas VA Dr. Clark Gregg said things have change dramatically since then.
“The changes in leadership have resulted in significant changes in the culture of this organization," Gregg said.
He said his hospital is now one of the best in the nation, with a quality of care rivaling any private hospital in the city.
"Every once in a while someone is going to have an unsatisfactory outcome; something can go wrong, just like it can in the private sector, where I used to be,” Gregg said. “I think the patients you are talking to are distinct anomalies."
Yet according to a 2011 e-mail obtained by News 8, staff urologist Dr. Kurt Evans equated the Dallas VA to a "used, poorly running Ford," and questioned why smaller VA's can "afford Porsche's when we have trouble buying gas for our old clunkers?"
Dr. Gregg disagreed with Evans, saying the VA is in fact the "Cadillac" of health care facilities in Dallas.
"[Evans] has a way of getting sharply outspoken on things, but not necessarily being in control of all the facts,” Gregg said. “I think he is not in control of the facts on this issue."
Gregg said the VA is spending $50 million on equipment upgrades this fiscal year and the hospital's quality performance measures have almost doubled since 2005. Still, others say the deficiencies remain high.
Dr. Kenneth Kippels of Dallas, who treats veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness, says the Dallas VA has too many patients and too little time to give many of them the quality of care they need.
"They are either getting discharged too early, they are not getting proper treatment, they are getting unnecessary treatment," Kippels said.
Meanwhile, Ward said she was the victim of all three of those deficiencies, and remains weak and in poor health. But she hopes her voice is strong enough to make a difference.
"By talking to you, if that one young veteran gets better care than I've gotten, it's worth it,” Ward said.
Complaints at the Dallas VA prompted a surprise inspection by the Inspector General last year, but no major deficiencies were found. Veterans who feel they are receiving sub-standard care can file a complaint with the Inspector General from this page.