VALLEY — For Veterans Day, Navy veteran Dean Terrell does not want to be thanked for his past service.
He wants to be assured of a future.
Terrell suffers from multiple medical problems ranging from genetic diseases to chronic back problems related to an injury sustained while he was in the service. Like many other veterans, he has become frustrated with the red tape associated with federal medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), most recently in the San Luis Valley where he and his wife have lived in recent months.
He has helped many other veterans negotiate the red tape through a nonprofit veterans organization he founded (Help-A-Veteran.org), but finding solutions to his own problems has been more difficult.
Around 1990 Terrell served four years as an aircraft sheet metal mechanic with Squadron VF 45 at the Naval Air Station Key West on Boca Chica Key, Florida. He was injured when an aircraft jack slid and hit him in the lower back causing problems he still suffers from today.
In addition, he has been diagnosed with the genetic disorders of Marfan Syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and severe scoliosis, with the curvature worsening by 17 degrees in three months alone, and among other medical problems suffers from a recurring brain tumor that initially surfaced in 1995.
He is totally and permanently disabled, TDIU (Total Disability Individual Unemployability.)
“I have been asking to see a neurologist for a year,” Terrell said.
As the local VA clinic does not have a resident physician, Terrell must be referred elsewhere for medical tests and procedures. Even when he was able to see local medical providers not associated with the VA clinic, he encountered challenges getting medical files transferred from one entity to another.
“I did a chest X-ray at the hospital, but the VA couldn’t see those records because it was a private hospital,” Terrell said. When he obtained the records himself, there was still a problem with no doctor to notify of the results.
Terrell said the hospital staff here has tried to get him in to a civilian doctor, but it seems that everything is a lengthy and challenging process when it comes to dealing with the VA.
There are procedures that could help alleviate some of Terrell’s problems, he said, such as putting a cage in his body to help straighten his spine and keep the ribs from crushing his organs.
He has contacted the local VA as well as supervising agencies and elected officials, some of whom have been more sympathetic than others, he said. “Nobody’s doing anything to help me, just telling me who else to talk to.”
He said if a patient like him has multiple ailments and complications, then the VA should assign more than one person to deal with the medical problems, “assign a team to me like pulmonologist, cardiologist, bone doctor …”
He said he has waited three months for medical appointments and not been scheduled at all for some of the specialists he should be seeing. The VA would not authorize some of the appointments he needed, he explained.
He has also had problems with mislabeled problems. For example, paperwork indicated he had nosebleed problems when his problems were much more severe, requiring facial surgery. A surgeon was willing to set up the surgery but could not get it authorized, Terrell said.
Because he has expressed such frustration in seeking advanced care, for example telling one VA official he would park outside the door until he was seen, he has been tagged as a hostile patient, he said.
“I am not a violent person,” he said.
He said he would like the VA to cooperate with civilian hospitals on his care. He said one of the local doctors wiped out the bill he owed and could not get reimbursed from the VA “because the doctor cared enough to see me.”
Terrell and his wife Sherrie live in Blanca now, having initially moved to Colorado from Georgia about a year ago so they could include cannabis in Terrell’s treatments. He makes his own cannabis oils.
“I am self treating.”
He said he has been told that his illnesses are incurable so all that can be done for him is to treat the symptoms, “and I am doing that myself.”
Discontinuing 25 years of prescription drug use, he was suffering so severely he almost took his own life, adding to the statistics of veteran suicide that are all too common.
“I was reaching for a gun to blow my brains out, and the dog barked,” he recalled. The interruption stopped him.
Terrell was living in Fort Garland when the Spring Fire hit this summer, which affected his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), so he and his wife moved to Blanca.
He said they have fallen in love with the San Luis Valley and want to remain here. He has a vision of building a cannabis related medical facility for veterans, he said.
“I love this area,” he said.
When asked what he wanted, he said, “to be treated like a human … and try to do everything you can to save me instead of telling me to go home and die. I just want to live.”