Nancy Washabaugh returns the flag that covered her husband's casket to a shelf.

Mother and daughter discuss Floyd Washabaugh's life as a picture of Floyd and his daughter at Christmas flashes on a TV.

A no-visitor policy at the Hampton VA hospital leaves a widow questioning her husband's care.

When Nancy Washabaugh admitted her husband to the psychiatric unit at the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in January, she was hopeful. Two weeks later, 63-year-old Floyd "Chip" Washabaugh was dead. A state medical examiner said the cause was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that enters the lung's arteries. Pulmonary embolism is the third-leading cause of hospital deaths, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can be caused by prolonged bed rest or inactivity, which is why hospitals encourage patients to get out of bed as quickly as possible after surgery.

Nancy can't say how often Chip moved around while in Hampton. Other than one consultation -- where he appeared unwashed and unkempt -- she was not allowed to see him.

At the Hampton hospital, psychiatric inpatients are not allowed visitors.

That policy, in effect at the hospital since 2004, appears to violate the patient rights laid out by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It also appears to violate generally accepted medical practice.

"I have never heard of a psychiatric unit that never permits visitors," said Margaret Walsh, director of the office of human rights for Virginia's mental health department, "and I have been in this field since 1967."

Dr. Priscilla Hankins, chief of the VA hospital's mental health services, defended the policy.

"I recognize that it's highly restrictive," Hankins said, "but it's for patients' safety."

"How could they keep me from my husband?" Nancy Washabaugh asked. "He needed me as much as I needed him."

BENEFITS AND RISKS

Receiving visitors has a healing benefit for patients, psychiatry experts said.

"It's widely believed that people with mental illness, as with physical illness, benefit from a support system" and having access to that support system, said Mary Cesare-Murphy, executive director for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations' behavioral health program. "I don't think that a lot of people have done research on that because it's just kind of accepted."

Visitors also act as monitors: Hospital staff members know that somebody is coming in and likely will point out any care issues they see.

They can also present risks. Cesare-Murphy points out that if a mental health patient's problem is linked to his or her family, visits might be a bad idea. The decision, she said, should be made case by case.

The VA hospital's blanket ban on visitors was imposed in response to two overdoses in the unit, Hankins said. One was in 2000, the second in 2001. The second overdose was fatal.

Both stemmed from contraband sneaked inside, she said. She wouldn't say what the contraband was.