The body of a missing hospital patient was discovered by search and rescue officials in a canyon Friday evening after an extensive search.
Chula Vista resident Thomas Vera, 58, had been missing since Monday. For the last several weeks, he had been a patient at the UCSD Medical Center.
Vera was admitted to the hospital after falling down the stairs at his home. He suffered a concussion and broken collar bone, according to his family, and was awaiting surgery.
On Monday morning, clad in a hospital gown, Vera wandered away from the hospital. His son, Antonio Vera, said security cameras spotted his father leaving the hospital area through a canyon, not along surface streets. Vera was last seen at 6 a.m. that morning.
Since then, Antonio said his family had been desperately searching for Vera.
“I've been looking for the past three days,” Antonio told NBC 7 on Friday. “My biggest fear is that he’s stuck in a bush somewhere and not being able to talk.”
Police and search and rescue teams began scouring the dense, rugged canyons near the hospital on Thursday. They returned Friday morning after viewing a security tape that indicated the direction Vera walked from UCSD Medical Center and searched all day long for any clues that might lead them to Vera.
Helicopters and San Diego police dogs helped in the exhaustive search, but for hours upon hours, officials came up short.
By the evening hours, search and rescue teams had rappelled deeper into the dense brush and tough, steep canyon terrain. Once officials went further into the canyon, they made a devastating discovery.
Vera's body was found at the bottom of Palm Canyon, not a mile from UCSD Medical Center where he walked away from Monday morning. A hospital gown and neck brace was also found at the scene, officials confirmed.
Vera's son, Antonio, collapsed and sobbed at the canyon's edge after hearing the news of his father's demise. His greatest concern was staying strong for his children, Vera's grandchildren, he said.
Next came the difficult task of recovery.
The foliage was so dense and the canyon walls were so steep, San Diego Fire Rescue crews made the risky choice to hoist Vera's body from the canyon by helicopter.
It was a sad, disappointing end to a four-day search for the missing hospital patient.
Search and Rescue Sgt. Don Parker hoped the discovery might bring some type of peace to Vera's family.
“This enbables the family to have closure,” said Sgt. Parker. “We don't always find the subject first. Sometimes we'll find a footprint or a garment.”
SDPD detective Sgt. Frank Hoerman said it was difficult breaking the news to Vera's family.
“The family has been actively involved. They've been out here dealing with this so it can be very difficult because they are actually part of the search,” said Sgt. Hoerman.
Search and Rescue officials said it's likely that Vera crawled down the rough canyon terrain. Sgt. Hoerman said it's also a possibility that Vera fell down the steep area, though that's all still under investigation.
Officials say a healthy man could survive for a week in those conditions, but since Vera was injured, it was much more difficult for him to stay alive in the canyon.
UCSD Medical Center spokesperson Debra Kain was at the scene of the body recovery Friday evening with a member of the medical center's security force.
Kain would not answer direst questions about the incident, but did say the hospital was saddened by Vera's death and sent condolences to the family.
A hospital spokesperson said that once Vera went missing on Monday, staff conducted an immediate search of the hospital and notified Vera's doctor and his nursing supervisor.
They then contacted hospital security and the San Diego Police Department and left a voice message to the patient's immediate family, followed up by a second phone call, the spokesperson said.
Representatives at UCSD Medical Center could not tell NBC 7 how many patients, like Vera, have walked away from the facility.
The county medical examiner will now work to determine a cause of death. That information is forthcoming.
Vera's daughter, Tanya Vera, told NBC 7 the family has established a fund for her father's memorial service. To donate, visit this website.