MONTROSE, Colo. (KKCO/KJCT)-- Imagine this, you’re on intense chemotherapy for five years, strong painkillers and not getting any better. After seeing dozens of doctors, one of them calls and says you actually never had cancer.
That's what one Montrose resident says happened to him.
"I just started getting a pain under my armpit way deep, so I went to the hospital and they did some tests and then the doctor told me that they found two abnormalities inside my left lung,” said James Salaz, Montrose resident who says he was misdiagnosed.
James has bounced back and forth between doctors since 2012.
"They did another open lung biopsy on me and they went to all three chambers, all the way down my left lung and they said I had Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis,” said Salaz.
He was told Langerhans is a rare cancer that causes cells to build up in parts of the body. It can damage tissue and lead to death.
"They said that I was the only one in Colorado that had it,” said Salaz.
After visiting doctors in Delta, Montrose, Grand Junction and Denver, he says they all confirmed that he had this rare cancer.
"I would curl up in a ball and I would just want to die because chemotherapy is bad,” said Salaz.
After months of intense chemotherapy, strong painkillers, and a handful of open lung biopsies, he says nothing was working. He went to, who he considered, his main doctor at the San Juan Cancer Center in Montrose but he wasn't there.
"So Dr. (Choon-Kee) Lee got dismissed from the Montrose hospital and they didn't even tell anybody that he got dismissed. I was waiting in the waiting room for an appointment,” said Salaz.
James had no choice but to find another doctor, but that’s when his whole life changed, yet again.
"She called me and told me that I never had Langerhans. I have a thing called vasculitis, and she said that if we would've treated it five years ago, you would be good. But now it’s gotten so bad that it’s called Wagners,” said Salaz.
Vasculitis is the inflammation of blood vessels. James says the new doctor told him that the abnormality in his left lung was actually just a vein. Not cancer. He was taken off all medications and chemotherapy.
"They treated something that I didn't even have and that’s kind of sad…you know and I think that somebody needs to be accountable for it,” said Salaz.
Now his problems continue. He needs to find a rheumatologist for the vasculitis, and it appears in our area, cancer maybe quicker to treat.
"I called and asked them if they got my referral and they said that it will be a year,” said Salaz.
There are about five rheumatologists in western Colorado. Two of them are at Fruita’s Arthritis Center of Western Colorado.
"Recognizing that we have nearly a thousand new patient referrals in total, it could be six to eight months or even a year, depending on again when they were referred and what the issue is,” said Dr. Jessica Baer Mears, rheumatologist, Arthritis Center of Western Colorado.
The lack of doctors means the waitlist will continue to grow. Dr. Baer Mears says she sees around 15-18 people a day and her patients travel from Vail, Durango and New Mexico.
"You don’t have patients that see you for a visit or two and then move on, you see them lifelong. So you are not having that flow out of the office. You really have that flow in,” said Dr. Baer Mears.
For now, James says all he can do is wait and tackle his newest diagnosis.
"Now I'm kind of scared to even go to doctors…it was a dream you know, but not a dream, but a nightmare,” said Salaz.
James says because of the intense chemo, doctors tell him he has to live with pancreatitis. He has already been to the hospital twice for it.
We reached out to Dr. Lee, who was let go last year, and he could not comment due to an active litigation. Montrose Memorial Hospital said in a statement:
“Montrose Memorial Hospital and the San Juan Cancer Center respect the unique and private relationship that exists between a patient and their care providers. We have no comment at this time”
“In response to your question, As of October of 2017 Dr. Choon- Kee Lee was no longer an employee of Montrose Memorial Hospital.”
For more information about what questions to ask your doctor about cancer click on the link to the right of this article.