I joined the Navy to serve my country. Period.
I didn’t join to get the great college money. I didn’t join to see the world. Those were perks, but not the reason. Naval service is a tradition in my family, predating the Revolutionary War. So when I was finally old enough, I raised my hand and signed the dotted line with pride in myself, in my country, and in those who came before me. The pride in my father’s eyes and his handshake were worth more to me than the meager paycheck, the fun, the travel, or the nautical experience.
I served in Desert Storm. I got injured.
I was on a physical therapy regime for three years while on active duty, treated with pain meds, electrical stimulation, muscle relaxers, and shore duty behind a desk. When the Navy finally decided that I was too broken to fix, they gave me an honorable discharge for seven years of service and told me the VA would take care of me for the rest of my life.
The result of my injury was seven degenerative disks in my spinal column. The VA decided that as young as I was, surgery wasn’t an option. This of course was after spending over a year shuttling from my home in way-south Alabama up to Birmingham for appointments with first an orthopedist who couldn’t understand why I had been sent to him in the first place since I was obviously a neuro patient, then a pain management clinic that just said to keep doing my physical therapy, and finally a neurosurgeon who gave me the news.
Over a year, just to tell me they wouldn’t do anything for me.
When I asked why, I was told that I would probably be in a wheelchair by the time I was thirty, would be impotent, and would be wearing adult diapers before the VA thought it was cost effective to operate on me.
You see, I had to get worse before I could get better.
At the time, I was single, broke, and didn’t understand how the government who promised to honor my service by salving my wounds could be so callous. But the VA, in their wisdom, decided that I could be treated for pain if I would come see them every four months or so. So, again, I did what my docs told me, under the impression that they 1) could actually do something or 2) gave a damn.
I spent 1994 to 1998 trying to get on with my life. I got married and had a son. I moved so that I could be closer to the clinic in Birmingham. Then I had a daughter.
I got fired from a job because the boss tired of me having to take off work to go to the doctor. That boss didn’t understand that if I missed an appointment at the clinic, it would be four months before I could get another — and while I waited, I wouldn’t be receiving any of my prescriptions that allowed me to make it through the pain.
I went bankrupt.
I finally got a good job using some of the skills the Navy taught me. It was a job that offered me health care coverage. As soon as I got medical insurance, the VA started charging me for the drugs they had been giving me for free all these years. With insurance, now they could mail my prescription drugs right to my house. It would cut down on how often I had to make the hajj to the clinic. What I didn’t realize until later was that the VA had succeeded in turning me into a junkie.
I realized this when my meds ran out, I waited for a week, and I still didn’t have any in the mail. They had been stolen from my mailbox, and they wouldn’t be replaced. Their official view was that I was lying about not having received them, because oh so many injured vets were burnouts who just wanted to get their fix. Or that I was selling my drugs. Or any number of other reasons.
However, I was told over the phone, I could get more drugs if I wanted to take a day off of work, come to the clinic, wait on standby to be seen with no guarantee that I would be, and submit to drug screening.
Or I could volunteer for this new pain management drug they were testing.
I was there the next day. Suddenly, the pace of getting seen and treated was moving at tremendous speed. While it usually took months to get an appointment and days to actually get meds, amazingly I could get this new drug right now.
It turns out this drug was a THC derivative. You know THC, the stuff in marijuana that makes you loopy. This stuff was freaking magic. One dose and I slept for nineteen hours. The second dose put me on the couch for ten hours alternately playing with my hair, wondering how come the head of an Olympic gymnast on television didn’t just fall off, and giggling like a maniac the whole time. Of course I was feeling no pain, but I wasn’t functioning either.
My wife called the clinic. It seems I needed to keep taking the pills for a while until I built up some resistance, then I wouldn’t be quite so slap-happy. At this point I still trusted the VA, I still thought everything was going to work out, and I still thought that I would be magically able to do my job come Monday morning. Since I only took one dose of the drug a day, after work, I was ready to go come Monday.
I went to work for a week, falling asleep at my computer every day. I came home and took my medicine. My wife tells me about things that happened that week that I still can’t remember.
But I do remember dropping my two-year-old son.
He was relatively unhurt, but it shook me to the core. I finally realized how bad off the drugs were making me. It was clear to me how utterly non-functional I had become. And the road ahead looked even bleaker.
I decided right there and then that I was finished. I flushed all the meds I had in the house — old prescriptions that I wasn’t taking anymore, the new THC wonder drug, even the Tylenol and aspirin that were lying around the house. Alcoholics call this a “moment of clarity.”I called it tired of being a zombie. Predictably, I had a psychotic incident a few days later that almost got me fired, the pain from my injuries had me bedridden, and I thought for sure, in my paranoia, that my wife was going to run out on me to protect her and the kids. And I wouldn’t have blamed her. I felt like a shadow of a man, cast on a yellowing window shade in a whorehouse. I felt worthless, weak, dependent, depressed, and broken in mind, body, and spirit.
But she didn’t leave me. She didn’t run off with the kids. Instead, we sold one of our cars, minimized our expenses to the bone, and moved to Florida, where the warmer weather did wonders for me. The years of drugs had only masked my pain, and I finally figured out that I was re-injuring myself constantly and that I needed to learn how to deal with the pain without drugs. It was a long process, one I am still dealing with today. I had to learn how to walk smart, move smart, work smart, and sleep smart so that I wouldn’t hurt myself anymore. My current doctor asks me sometimes how I did it.
My answer is always the same: I didn’t have a choice.
In the past five years, I have had problems with my kidneys, liver, and pancreas due to the huge number of drugs I took for so long. I am now a diabetic due to that damage. I have bone spurs in my spine brought on from the steroid shots I received for years at the hands of the VA to help me manage the pain of my injury.
I just called on a new neurosurgeon last week. He will be operating to fix some of those bone spurs in my neck next week. From the time I had the MRI done to recovery room will be just under two months.
Two months versus nine years of working through a government medical care program. One that made the lives of not only myself but also my wife and family utterly miserable for years.
If anyone thinks that the government running health care is a good idea, remember all the horror stories that you have heard about how the VA takes care of America’s heroes.
Remember that at least ten thousand vets at VA hospitals across the southeast had to be tested for HIV and hepatitis because the VA medical centers couldn’t follow the instructions on how to clean equipment, and that at least fifty have been infected because of that.
Remember that the Philadelphia VA medical center mismanaged the prostate cancer treatments of almost a hundred vets. And the list goes on and on.
And remember this story, too.
Private medicine works. I had to re-prioritize my life so I could afford proper medical care, but now I can afford it when I need it. And I need it to combat the ineffectual and, in the long run, damaging care I received when it was “free.”
You get what you pay for.