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Army veteran dies while waiting on liver transplant, family remains frustrated by VA health care system

Betty Smith wants her daughter to be remembered as a veteran who fought on the front lines and on her bed of affliction.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Sunnie Smith's name is not on the Veterans Memorial Wall, but she is being remembered as a hero on the battle lines and on her bed of affliction.

"She was my hero," said Betty Smith.

Sunnie Smith did two tours in Iraq, came home and fought the biggest fight of her life. We met the Smith family a year ago.

Sunnie Smith was in the heart of her fight with liver disease and with the Veterans Affairs healthcare system.

"She needed that liver and we kept waiting and we kept waiting to be put on that list," said Betty Smith.

Betty Smith became her daughter's biggest advocate and made appeals with the VA and with her U.S. congressmen to put her daughter on the organ transplant list. 

"She needed a liver and she fought the disease with courage," she said.

The army veteran was in the final stages of liver failure. The family says during her second tour in Iraq she became ill, and shortly afterward, they discovered the source of her illness.

Smith said in 2018, the VA, which was her primary health care provider, told them her daughter would possibly be accepted by a center in Virginia for a liver transplant. The hold up was her MELD score.

"She had not met that score they wanted her to have," said her mother.

When communication with the VA went silent, they contacted On Your Side. We reached out to the VA and Smith was transferred to the Gainesville VA Hospital treated for a week and discharged.

But still no word on a liver transplant.

"She was so strong," said Smith.

The family said the veteran needed a MELD score of 26.

MELD stands for "model for end-stage liver disease" and the score ranges from six to 40.

Smith told us her daughter’s score finally reached 28, but she was too sick to be considered for a transplant.

We don't know if the VA is to blame 100%, but the process in getting the veteran's level of care elevated to a higher priority frustrated the family then, and they remain disappointed with the VA and its process.

"They kept saying the outreach is to the local branch and they are waiting on the process," she said.

On Saturday, Army Veteran Sunnie Smith died from complications related to her disease. She leaves behind a 10-year-old and many who loved her.

Betty Smith wants her daughter to be remembered as a veteran who fought on the front lines and on her bed of affliction.

"She was a brave, strong will young lady," said Betty Smith. "She was a fighter."

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