The VA is government-run health care. It’s the largest single health care organization in the United States. The patients they see aren’t like the patients that our private health care system treats- they are different. Many of them have been to hell and back and are already living on borrowed time.
My father, is an 87-year-old Army Veteran with a cornucopia of medical issues. When I was in fourth grade he suffered a heart attack, and doctors gave him less than five years to live. He’d broken up a fight outside a Boston bar in the fifties while driving a cab to put himself through Boston University- and had been stabbed in the back (the VA put him back together then too). He’d had multiple heart surgeries over the years- each one more risky. He has a low grade cancer. He’s diabetic. He’s not what you call an ideal candidate for surgery. In fact, in the pre-op meeting, the anesthesiologist flat out opened with “this surgery will kill you”
That had been the reason they didn’t opt to operate over five years ago when the hernia began. At that time I didn’t challenge the doctor. And neither did my father. He sucked it up and drove on. That’s what old soldiers do. Older people also are less likely to challenge their doctors- it’s just not what they do.
I watched as the hernia grew. And grew. His quality of life kept getting worse. After his first heart attack he started running- jogging as we called it in those days. Running one mile was his first goal- as laid out in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police workout. That was the state of athletic training then. Calisthenics and a run. I remember “running” with him- at a snail’s pace. A 12 minute mile was an amazing accomplishment at first. He kept running- and tracking it on the wall at the JCC on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. He loves to tell people how he ran 3,500 miles. And the cardiologist, who gave him five years to live- died before those five years were up- and they were close in age at the time.
After five years of an ever-growing hernia, he sometimes sat on his special cushion the VA had given him- with a cutout for the distended parts- and just hung his head. I know how uncomfortable it is- having had both a hernia and a varicocele. He never complained.
The turning point was when his pacemaker/defibrillator battery began to near end of life. The doctors all got in a big hurry to operate to replace the battery, device, add leads etc. I said “hold it. You won’t operate on the hernia that’s making him miserable, but have no problem operating on a 10-year-old pacemaker that’s pacing less than 1% of the time and has never defibrillated?” Why is your CYA device more important than everyday life?
I got stern lectures from our GP (we see the same guy) – from cardiology, from pulmonary- all giving all the reasons that one surgery was risky and the other was somehow warranted. The surgeon, luckily saw my point of view and thought she could give it a shot. All the departments that had to sign off, all did so grudgingly and pointed out the things that would make it risky. About two weeks ago, we were on the pre-op consultation rounds and the anesthesiologist flat out said “you’ll die on the table” explaining how his damaged heart’s output wasn’t up to the task of moving the oxygen after surgery.
My father faced a decision. Go on with the ever increasing mass- or risk an almost certain death. We spent the last 2 weeks talking, eating at his favorite places- Smashburger and the Amber Rose. We went over the will, the insurance, the notifications- and today, we headed off to the VA at Oh Dark Thirty for the big day. It was almost 1:30 when the surgeon came out to tell us how it went.
The hole, which is usually the size of a quarter was big enough to fit two hands in. The small intestine had descended instead of the colon. He was suffering from malabsorption in addition- thank to the pieces not being in the right place. They did some innovative anesthesia. When he came to, his first words were “I’m alive.” When I got to see him, he had more color than he’s had in the last year- and his smile was ear to ear (even without most of his teeth).
As Yoda would say, “the will to live is strong with this one.” Others would say, he’s too stubborn to die. My mother, his wife of 60 years, cried tears of joy more than a few times today. I found out on Facebook how many people I’ve touched who were willing to keep him in their thoughts and prayers.
And, this is a story that none of you will read on the front page of the Dayton Daily news- or any other “newspaper” in this country. All you’ll ever hear about the VA is how they made a mistake. As if they don’t make mistakes in every single hospital in the world.
There were other families in the waiting room today. The surgical waiting room is staffed by volunteers- a wonderful woman from Belmont who is a military widow. I didn’t catch her name, but I couldn’t have asked for someone who kept us all smiling through the wait on our loved ones. There was a common bond in that room, not only of those waiting for possibly bad news- but of those who have a common bond of service to this country. There were no strangers in the room. Something that’s pretty common in every VA I’ve ever been in.
The room is stocked and funded by the Disabled American Veterans – who supply free snacks, coffee, tea, water. The TV is donated by Best Buy. The only things missing were wi-fi and cell reception :-) I’ve decided that the bare walls needed some art by veterans on the walls- and have reached out to two Marines I know who are amazing photographers for some prints.
My father isn’t out of the woods yet. There are always post-op complications possible. But, the other families who were waiting, they all got good news too.
But when the VA does good, you won’t read about that anywhere but here. And I am so thankful for the changes that the Director, Glenn Costie has made and the new surgical leadership they have in place.
I urge all veterans in the area, even those in perfect health, to please go out to the Dayton VA and register with them for care. As long as you have a DD 214, and an honorable discharge, they have services available to you.
Thank you for reading. And thank you for supporting our veterans by funding this amazing service.