Over 100 Veterans Say A Doctor Butchered Their Feet. He’s Still Working And Says He Was A Scapegoat.

·26 min read

FORT WAYNE, Indiana — In late 2017, dozens of veterans across northern Indiana started receiving strange letters and phone calls asking them to come to their local Veterans Affairs hospital for a meeting. They’d all been suffering with foot or ankle pain, exacerbated, they believed, by troubled surgeries that sometimes resulted in fractured bones or lacerated tendons.

When the veterans showed up for the meeting, VA staff told them that their problems were not a result of bad luck, as most had thought. They were told their surgeries had been, effectively, botched.

All of these cases, 147 surgeries in total, were tied to one man: a northern Indiana Veterans Affairs doctor named Bradley Hammersley.

One patient said Hammersley put the wrong-sized screws into his foot, causing so much pain that he had to retire early. Another said Hammersley performed surgery on his toe when the actual problem was with his Achilles tendon, and he now struggles to walk. One said Hammersley removed his sutures too early, which caused an infection. One said Hammersley talked her into unneeded surgeries on both feet that left her with shooting pain, unable to even wiggle her toes. One patient said he has endured multiple surgeries to try to repair the damage caused by Hammersley’s initial surgery, which was totally unnecessary. One said Hammersley severed a perfectly fine tendon during an operation.

Patients say they are now dealing with aftereffects: lifelong chronic pain, inability to work, difficulty walking for more than a few minutes or at all, and amputation.

The VA gave the veterans instructions on how to file a tort claim for compensation. But then the VA rejected those claims en masse, saying the patients were too late. The VA’s own delays in finding and disclosing the problem meant the statute of limitations had passed. The veterans, many dealing with chronic foot pain, were plunged into years of litigation.

A cascade of system failures exacerbated the problems. Veterans Affairs overlooked warning signs and took action too late, the Office of the Indiana Attorney General ran a protracted investigation that went nowhere, the state podiatry board was left in the dark and repeatedly renewed Hammersley’s license, and the legal system complicated patients’ efforts to get compensation. For years, institutions from top to bottom failed to recognize and address veterans’ pain.

Gruesome allegations leveled across dozens of lawsuits depict a doctor of monstrous incompetence who was allowed to operate with impunity. But sitting in his yard in Indiana, Hammersley comes off as mild-mannered, cautious, and, above all, defiant. He insists that he did not commit the malpractice he is accused of, and that he has had false allegations pinned on him with no opportunity to defend himself. Because he is not a personal party to the lawsuits, his side of the story had been missing until he was contacted for this story.

Hammersley is still practicing medicine today.

“I completely trusted him.”

Bradley Hammersley started out as a podiatrist at an Indiana clinic in 2000. After a couple of years, his contract wasn’t renewed. His parents lent him enough money to start up a practice in Peru, Indiana, in 2002, and he went out on his own. In 2006, he began working one shift a week for the VA as a part-time contractor. Eventually, that expanded to two shifts per week. By 2014, he was hired full-time as a VA podiatrist out of Fort Wayne.

Over the next two years, Hammersley would perform hundreds of surgeries, dozens of which ended in lawsuits — yet patients frequently described him as someone who exuded confidence.

“The way he came off, the way he introduced himself, he was bragging about his credentials and how he was the best in the area,” Ephraim Shields, an Air Force veteran, told BuzzFeed News. “I really thought he knew what he was doing. I didn’t have any reason to doubt him.”

Hammersley denied ever claiming he was the best podiatrist around.

“No, no, no. They misconstrued. I never pitched myself at being the best at anything. By and large I consider myself an average podiatrist at best,” he said.

Reading through the statements of claim, patterns become obvious. Over and over, patients allege that Hammersley recommended surgeries that were not warranted by scans — to fix bones that weren’t broken or tendons that should have been treated conservatively. Over and over, they claim, those surgeries were botched. Sometimes improper machinery would be inserted into the foot or the proper machinery would be inserted poorly. Many patients reported coming away with more chronic pain than they had come in with.

There are lawsuits that date back to surgeries Hammersley performed in the 2000s — but the real explosion of cases started in 2014, when he was hired full time at the VA.

Fort Wayne resident Carisa Snyder said her foot troubles started with the simple act of tripping on a curb. The pain wasn’t going away, so in 2014, when she was 38 years old, she went to see Hammersley. He told her she had a broken bone in her big toe. Snyder, who had previously worked on aircraft carrier flight decks for the Navy, was taken aback. She had no pain in her toe.

But she figured Hammersley knew what he was doing. “I completely trusted him,” Snyder, now 45, told BuzzFeed News. Hammersley recommended surgery to remove the bone, and she consented. Later, the VA would concede that the bone in her toe had never been fractured.

“He went into it and removed a bone that was not broken. There was nothing wrong with it,” she said.

Hammersley also cut a tendon running along her big toe during the surgery. Snyder said he had never told her this, and she only found out years later. (The VA conceded that Hammersley misdiagnosed her and cut a tendon during the surgery but said it could not say whether he had hidden this from her.)

The pain got worse. For months, she said, she tried to suck it up and hoped it would get better, but it never did. She would undergo four more surgeries and said her doctor told her another one is likely needed. The pain she initially wanted treated, she said, “is nothing compared to what I have now.” She describes it as more or less constant. She isn’t as active as she used to be and hardly walks. It’s caused depression. She’s written off hopes and ideas like going on hiking trips ever again.

“I want to do so much,” she said. “I didn’t know at thirtysomething years old that that would be it.”

“You need to take the knife out of his hands.”

BuzzFeed News first sought records related to Hammersley in 2019. The VA’s public affairs department in Indiana did not respond to questions and instead referred to the Freedom of Information system. When BuzzFeed News filed multiple FOIA requests, the department said it could find no such records.

In one case, BuzzFeed News requested the 2018 report of the VA Administrative Investigation Board, which examined what went wrong. The department responded that it could find no record of such an examination.

But it did exist. A 13-page internal memorandum summarizing the report became public through the VA’s legal battles. It revealed how the department had failed to protect its patients.

VA leadership in Indiana was slow to respond to what was unfolding under its own roof, the review found, brushing aside complaints until the possibility of disaster became too likely to ignore.

Staffers in the VA healthcare system had serious concerns about Hammersley for years, and some repeatedly tried to get senior leaders to step in and investigate, the memorandum shows. The worries were not subtle: One staffer told investigators there was a “constant buzz” of frustration about the culture of the surgery department and the unaddressed problems with podiatry.

One podiatrist, Holly Becker, started alerting John Burns, the chief of surgery, in 2015 about what she believed to be grave concerns with Hammersley’s performance. “You need to take the knife out of his hands,” Becker told Burns in March 2016.

Investigators described Burns as animated and confident that he had acted correctly. He told them he did not remember a conversation about taking the knife out of Hammersley’s hands.

Amy Bierbaum, a nurse practitioner, also tried to force VA leaders to act. She said she came across several patients Hammersley had recommended for surgery who, to her eyes, did not need it. She raised this with Burns, who, she said, responded, “Why don’t you just bring it up with [Hammersley]?” Burns told investigators he did not recall this interaction.

On one occasion, Bierbaum said, she raised concerns about a lack of a scan on one of Hammersley’s patients; Burns told her, “I’ll look into it. Don’t worry about it." According to the memorandum, Bierbaum said she told Burns of “some serious problems in podiatry,” such as missed cancer diagnoses and recommendations for surgery that did not match imaging reports.

Reached by phone, Burns said Bierbaum was not qualified to review Hammersley’s work as a podiatrist. But he insisted he took the complaints by Becker seriously and started collecting names of patients to look into. “I’m the one that put the guardrails in place to actually see what was going on,” he said.

Burns is an ear, nose, and throat doctor and was not qualified to review Hammersley’s files himself. So he passed them to the VA’s head office for review in March 2016, six months after Becker first started raising complaints. The Administrative Investigation Board came down hard on Burns for this monthslong delay, finding he “did not take appreciable action in a timely manner relative to the concerns presented.” The board recommended disciplinary action.

Burns told BuzzFeed News he may have been able to report Hammersley to head office a month or two earlier, but said he had been working 80 hours per week and badly stretched thin trying to juggle his roles as both a manager and a surgeon. “Maybe they should walk a mile in my shoes,” he said.

Burns gave BuzzFeed News a memo that showed he was temporarily relieved of his chief of surgery duties pending the investigation, months before the board recommended disciplinary action. Burns said that the VA never found cause to discipline him and he resigned as chief of surgery because he felt like he was in limbo. Burns said he was sidelined while starting to set up a full review of Hammersley’s surgeries, though he remains on staff at the VA as a doctor. “I tried to give them advice on how to do this properly. They weren’t interested. They fired me, basically,” he said.

Hammersley suffered a stroke in the spring of 2016. When he returned to work, he was under investigation and stripped of his ability to conduct surgeries without supervision. In March 2017, he was barred from conducting surgeries whatsoever. Finally, in June 2017, Hammersley was terminated.

The letter firing him, later disclosed in court, lays out a long string of allegations, including failing to demonstrate that he was able to interpret MRI scans, failing to provide basic primary care, exhibiting “confusing thought processes,” and being inattentive. “The time of the appointment was 42 minutes and you spent less than 5 minutes with hands on the patient. The remaining time you spent at the computer with your back to the veteran, asking occasional questions,” says the letter from medical center director Michael Hershman, who concludes that the charges are “of such gravity” that discipline should not be mitigated to anything less than termination.

When interviewed by investigators, Burns’ superior, chief of staff Wayne McBride, initially denied that Becker or Bierbaum had ever brought concerns directly to him. But after prompting, he admitted to receiving an email from Becker and having two conversations with her during which she voiced concerns about Hammersley.

The memorandum said that McBride “spoke very softly and kept his head down during much of the interview. He was quiet and took time before answering most questions. He was evasive and general without clear recollections related to many questions. On more than one occasion, he commented regarding ‘that was all he had to say.’”

Reached by phone, McBride told BuzzFeed News that he believed he dealt with the Hammersley situation promptly and appropriately. Though now retired, he said he needed to consult with the VA before doing a full interview and subsequently did not answer calls or messages.

In December 2017, VA leaders decided to conduct a major investigation. By then, Hammersley had been fired over the substandard treatment of eight veterans — but it was clear the problem could be larger than that. They began to review every surgery Hammersley had performed for the VA — 415 cases in total.

The review took three months and turned up 145 cases of substandard care involving 113 individual veterans. Two more cases would later be discovered, bringing the number of affected veterans to 115.

Lawyer David Farnbauch of Sweeney Law Firm said he suspects the true number of affected patients is even higher. Farnbauch represents 33 of Hammersley’s former patients who are suing the VA for malpractice.

Throughout his time at the VA, Hammersley was undergoing — and passing — performance reviews every six months. The board found that there were “several contributing factors” as to why the reviews did not turn up concerns, such as forms containing only simple “yes”/“no”/“NA” answers and not mentioning anything surgical or podiatric.

The board also recommended disciplinary action against McBride for deficiency in conducting his duties, which included a lack of follow-through for three months while Burns completed his “fact-finding” investigation.

Burns was demoted from his role as chief of surgery but continued as a surgeon. McBride later retired from the VA. Hammersley entered private practice and started working for a company that provided treatment to older adults.

“It’s sort of PTSD”

At the end of 2017, the VA started a monthslong campaign of reaching out to Hammersley’s patients. VA regulations require that these meetings, known as institutional disclosures, take place whenever a patient suffers an adverse event while receiving care.

A half dozen veterans all told BuzzFeed News essentially the same story: The VA called them in, told them they were the victims of substandard care, walked through their medical files in detail, and told them of their rights to file a tort claim and seek compensation.

But at no point did VA staffers say anything to them about the statute of limitations having already passed. Tort claims are the least burdensome way for veterans to file a civil claim for damages, but, under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the statute of limitations for filing a claim expires two years after someone knows, or should have known, that they were the victim of malpractice.

The yearslong gap between the VA being warned about Hammersley and notifying patients meant that the agency was protected from these claims.

Hammersley’s patients started filing tort claims against the VA en masse in 2018. But the agency rejected them, claiming that they had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The VA claimed Hammersley’s patients should have known they may have been victims of malpractice after their botched surgeries, not when the agency was required to disclose it.

With the tort avenue closed off, patients turned to the more arduous route of filing malpractice lawsuits.

An athletic type who works out four or five times per week, Ephraim Shields is in his early 50s but looks a good decade younger. He also uses a cane and says he will never be able to run again. His work as a lab tech keeps him on his feet; he said the pain can become unbearable by around noon.

Shields hurt his left foot in a Hummer accident in 1988 while he was in the Air Force. He went to the VA in 2014 because of pain and stiffness. After an MRI scan, Hammersley diagnosed him with a series of ailments: left ankle instability, ruptures of four different ligaments, tarsal tunnel syndrome, and plantar fasciitis. Shields said Hammersley convinced him that major surgery was necessary.

But none of this was true, Shields would later claim in a lawsuit. The VA conceded that the scans didn’t show multiple ruptured ligaments, but arthritis, some mild thickening of the anterior talofibular ligament, and scar tissue.

Shields underwent the surgery in 2015. The VA would concede Hammersley inserted an unnecessary stabilizing device called a “tightrope” and performed another unnecessary procedure, a dermal graft to strengthen the ligament, according to the lawsuit. By 2016, not only had the discomfort not subsided but Shields was feeling new soreness and a tingling sensation at the top of his foot. Another podiatrist saw him and diagnosed him with chronic complex regional pain syndrome — acute and permanent pain, essentially.

Shields said his doctors have told him that the hardware cannot be removed without risking further damage, that no further surgeries are recommended, and that he will experience foot pain for the rest of his life. The aching has spread to the entire top of his foot and side of his ankle, and he keeps thinking about how bad it will get.

“It’s sort of PTSD, but not associated with the kind you would see with people in the military in wars and stuff,” Shields said. “But still, just thinking about what he did and not being able to do anything. Thinking about what it’s going to be like five years from now, 10 years from now. It’s always on my mind.”

Hammersley’s lawyer, Michael Gaerte, sent a statement to BuzzFeed News saying that, because years have passed and the podiatrist no longer has access to his former patients’ medical histories, diagnostic information, progress notes, and imaging before and after treatment, he could not comment on specific cases. “Dr. Hammersley takes his duties as a podiatrist seriously and he has provided excellent care to hundreds of patients,” Gaerte said.

"Approve the Renewal"

While the VA has said little publicly, it did respond to questions from Rep. Jim Banks, who serves northeastern Indiana. The VA’s inspector general provided a redacted copy of the investigation to Banks, whose staff shared a summary of those findings with BuzzFeed News.

The inspector general said that in response to the Hammersley case, the VA changed its policies and implemented new safeguards for staffers to raise alarms. The VA also told Banks it had reported Hammersley to “all appropriate credentialing and medical boards to ensure he will not continue practicing.”

But Hammersley is still practicing, today, out of a clinic in Lansing, Michigan. In fact, he has not yet faced any discipline whatsoever from the bodies that oversee professional certification.

Minutes from an Indiana Board of Podiatric Medicine meeting in October 2017 show that Hammersley’s case was reviewed and that he had admitted he was terminated from the VA for failing to demonstrate appropriate podiatric skill. But, according to the minutes, he told the board he had had a mild stroke and subsequently fully recovered. He was appealing the VA’s charges in order to clear his name, he told the board, which seemed to accept this explanation.

“After discussion, the Board moved to APPROVE the RENEWAL of Dr. Hammersley’s PODIATRIC LICENSE with the State of Indiana,” the minutes say.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, the umbrella organization for the Board of Podiatric Medicine, told BuzzFeed News that Hammersley himself had disclosed his termination from the VA and that the board was given no information other than what he had provided in his defense.

In Indiana, it is actually the attorney general’s office that investigates complaints against licensed professionals. The boards act as jurors, ruling on punishments after those investigations are complete.

The VA filed a complaint against Hammersley to then–Indiana attorney general Curtis Hill on Feb. 22, 2018. Hill’s office launched an investigation, but nothing came of it for three years, and the podiatry board was not notified. Eric Sears, a spokesperson for the board, said the attorney general’s office can choose — but is not obligated — to alert licensing boards that an investigation is underway, and it did not do so for Hammersley.

Last year, Hill’s run as attorney general came to an end. After four women accused him of groping them at a party and the Indiana Supreme Court suspended his law license for 30 days, the former prosecutor and Elvis impersonator was defeated by former Republican congressman Todd Rokita.

Rokita took over in January 2021. On May 18 — three years and three months after the VA first flagged Hammersley — the attorney general’s office filed a complaint to the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, laying out several allegations of misconduct by Hammersley and calling for unspecified discipline. A hearing still needs to be scheduled during which the attorney general’s office will lay out its evidence and, possibly, call for his license to be revoked.

In the meantime, Hammersley has started practicing in Michigan. His license was granted there “by endorsement,” meaning he was approved because he was already licensed in another state. Hammersley told Michigan authorities, truthfully, that he had never been disciplined by the podiatry board in Indiana.

In fact, the Indiana board renewed his license just this June, clearing him to practice until 2023.

“I was ripe for the picking.”

Bradley Hammersley can explain.

Reached in person at his home in Indiana, Hammersley insisted the allegations against him were false but said he did not want to talk to a reporter. After a long discussion, he agreed to talk on the record. Sitting in his yard, he said this is not a story about widespread malpractice but one of power, money, and interpersonal conflict. He said it is about one staffer — him — being made the scapegoat for the VA’s institutional failures.

Soft-spoken and still wearing a medical scrubs top, Hammersley denied committing malpractice except for one instance, which didn’t even end in litigation. He said that after having a stroke, he was pushed out of the VA by an ambitious colleague who subsequently pinned the false claims of malpractice on him. Because his health had not yet fully recovered, he said, he could not defend himself. “I was ripe for the picking,” he said.

Regarding the dozens of lawsuits against the VA regarding his surgeries, he said “there is a significant financial gain” at play for people making those allegations — but he repeatedly insisted he does not judge his former patients for seeking compensation.

“Do I harbor any enmity towards them? No. I wish them well. I’ve always wished them well,” he said. “I know it’s difficult for me to say that and them to believe me based on their statements of injury and harm, but honestly I feel badly that they feel that they’ve been injured. Do I think that I promulgated their injury? No.”

Hammersley would not talk about individual cases, saying it does no good to engage with a specific veteran’s allegations. He said he understands the fights they often have to go through to receive basic benefits, such as disability pay. “That’s the reason I don’t harbor any ill will towards them. I don’t. Not any of them. I just wish I wasn’t their scapegoat.”

While he did have disagreements about CT scans with other staffers, such as the radiologists, he said he believed he was the only one qualified to make the right diagnosis. He said that none of his patients had filed any contemporaneous complaints against him, and the wave of allegations only came after he had left the VA and had no opportunity to defend himself. (BuzzFeed News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all complaints made against Hammersley by patients and staffers. The VA responded with a Glomar statement, saying it cannot confirm or deny the existence of such documents. As such, BuzzFeed News cannot confirm if any complaints were filed against Hammersley while he was an employee.)

That leaves the rather large question of why the VA would disclose 147 instances of substandard care, opening itself up to extreme legal liability, if no surgeries had been botched to begin with. Hammersley argued the review done by his colleague, Holly Becker, was not a record of his faults but instead showed a simple disagreement in diagnoses between two podiatrists. “What should be done in any different circumstance? If you ask 100 podiatrists, you’ll get 100 different answers,” he said.

Hammersley portrayed Becker as someone who pushed him aside in order to clear a way for her own professional advancement. “I think I threatened her,” he said. “Not physically, not mentally. I think I was a threat to her scheme to get a higher [position and] paycheck.”

Becker declined to comment for this story.

He conceded that some of his surgeries likely resulted in the pain and suffering alleged in lawsuits, but he chalked that up as an inevitable result of performing a high number of operations. He said he’s now preparing to fight to keep his license before the Indiana Board of Podiatry. He said he still believes that he was fired because of his stroke, not poor performance.

“I’ve gone through all kinds of emotions — depression, anger, all of those. At this point, except for the fact that you’re writing about it, this a moot point to me. They can’t hurt me anymore,” he said before adding, “other than take my license.”

Hammersley said he is no longer performing surgeries — not because any regulatory authority ever stopped him, but because after he left the VA, the cost of malpractice insurance became astronomical.

Hammersley does have a point that the review into his surgeries was unusual. Former chief of surgery John Burns said that, before he was fired, he had been starting to set up a process with multiple reviewers including outside experts to avoid a conflict of interest. He said the review was fatally flawed with the appearance of a conflict of interest by having a single coworker, Holly Becker, evaluate all of Hammersley’s files.

“I didn’t think it was fair to her professionally or personally to make her the only one [reviewing the files],” he said. “The appearance is wrong.”

During a brief phone conversation, Wayne McBride, the former chief of staff, said he stood behind the review process. “I felt that we managed things appropriately,” he said. “We dealt with the cases that were felt to have been done either improperly or ended up having adverse events because of the way the procedures were performed.”

Veterans Affairs spokesperson Alexandria Sharpe provided a statement to BuzzFeed News saying the department always seeks ways to improve the healthcare it provides. “[The Northern Indiana VA] completed an internal review of all surgical podiatry cases performed by Dr. Hammersley and has contacted affected Veterans to discuss their options moving forward. As of May 2017, the individual is no longer employed with VA. For the privacy of all involved and integrity of the court system, VA can’t discuss matters currently in litigation.”

“It was the way the VA handled this shit. They handled it all kinds of wrong.”

Richard Sipocz was working for the Air Force in munitions in 2009 when he was flown up to a base in Kirkuk, a city in Iraq a few hours north of Baghdad. Outside the base, a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device.

“[The blast] just flipped me over the truck, and when I landed I broke my leg. I mean, I was out,” he said.

His leg was broken in seven places.

Five years later, he was working in Fort Wayne at the General Motors plant, making good money as a supervisor. But he had some lingering pain in his right ankle. Hammersley was the only VA podiatrist around, serving the communities of Fort Wayne and nearby Marion.

Hammersley diagnosed Sipocz with a talar fracture and ankle joint derangement. The VA would later concede that this was a misdiagnosis; the CT scans did not show a fracture. He recommended ankle ligament surgery despite there being, as the VA admitted, “no imaging to suggest that any soft tissue needed to be repaired.” None of this was known to Sipocz at the time. Instead, he was won over by Hammersley’s advice. “I never really had any doubts about him. He never gave me any indication he didn’t know what he was talking about,” he said.

During the surgery, Hammersley tried but failed to insert a tightrope. Sipocz’s posterior tibial tendon, which runs up the ankle, was damaged. He claimed Hammersley had told him it snapped during surgery, but the VA would concede that it was cut.

Sipocz said he was then in even more pain and the range of motion of his foot was limited. His shifts required mostly standing for 10 hours. Sometimes his leg would give out. He said he fell several times. “My work started to suffer,” he said. Eventually, he quit.

He got a second surgery from a different doctor, which helped for a while. But his ankle deteriorated again. “I can gauge it by how I was able to walk my dog. After those surgeries, the distance I could walk my dog got shorter and shorter. During the walks, my leg would just, you know, the numbing and then the needle pains start shooting up.”

Sipocz went through the same process as everyone else. He filed a tort claim; when the claim was denied, he sued the VA. It took almost two years. Earlier this year, the VA settled for an undisclosed sum. Sipocz said he got less than half of what he asked for, but every dollar he got felt like a bonus. “I thought I’d be dead before this shit was ever going to get done,” he said. He is one of several veterans who finally received payments in recent months after years of litigation.

David Farnbauch, the lawyer handling the largest volume of suits, said so far eight of his 33 clients have received settlements. He said the payments have been fair and reasonable and that his clients have been happy. He added that the settlements he’s seen have ranged from $200,000 to up to $1 million for serious cases, such as amputations.

“Personally, it was the way the VA handled this shit. They handled it all kinds of wrong,” Sipocz said. “Now at least I can breathe, knowing that it’s over.”

Carisa Snyder is another patient who got a settlement. After her fifth foot surgery in December, she was told by her doctor that she may need a sixth to remove some screws. The settlement has given her more financial freedom, and she has started to feel a sense of closure, but she feels that the truth has never fully come out. And she still feels angry whenever she thinks about what happened to her.

“I still feel like, damn them. I think I’ll always feel that way whenever I feel the pain in my toe.” ●

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