Vets Shouldn’t Have to Wait for a Cardiologist!

My Story:

I am a US Army combat Vet with 16 years of total service…I was a Tank Crewman in the Cold War, then re-enlisted after 9/11 and mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom in November, 2004. My first daughter was born in October 2004 and I only had 30 days with her before I deployed to Iraq. I didn’t get back until the next November, after her 1st Birthday.  I went on many missions with the 216th MI, Ground Surveillance and Recon Platoon and I was awarded a Combat Action Badge. I lost two friends to IED’s.  I also survived a rocket attack when it impacted behind me and went whizzing past me, but for some reason, perhaps by divine intervention, it failed to detonate. I just think it was autonomous chance, like a Las Vegas Slot Machine except this one took your life in exchange for nickels and the payout jackpot was another day to live and breath God’s good air.

On a mission in Iraq, 2005.

I struggled when I got home. I was diagnosed with Combat PTSD. My wife divorced me one year later and she got full legal and physical custody of our, now, two daughters. My world then proceeded to fall apart. 

I soon met my Girlfriend from Phoenix who rescued me, from myself and I moved in with her in Jan 2008. Since then I have been hospitalized twice for suicidal ideations and severe depression. When my girlfriend rightly broke up with me for a while, I found myself living in a rough neighborhood near the Phoenix VA Hospital on Indian School Rd. One night, while drinking heavily, I fixated on a bottle of oxycodone. I then counted out enough pills that I thought would do the trick and end my suffering. I took a picture of the pills and was going to announce my plans on FB, but I decided to lay down on my couch and think about it; fortunately I passed out without swallowing the pain killers.

The picture I took in 2015 of the pain kilers I was planning to take.

The next morning I realized I was really close to dying that night and it was at that point that I realized I was in desperate need of help.

Eventually I got sober and last October (2019) I went to Truck Driving School. I eventually got hired by a major carrier and I was out on the road, a rookie, when the pandemic started in March of 2020. I was stressing a lot, but I was doing well, and catching on fast. I was really loving being out on the open road, the responsibilities I had…I felt like I had a worthy mission, delivering much needed goods to the suffering American people.

Waiting to Fuel somewhere between Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Often, tears would come to my eyes when I looked out across the vast, beautiful, American vistas and I would think about the hardships I had survived to get there, in the driver’s seat of a big rig. My buddy who got killed in Iraq told me stories, while we trained at Ft. Bliss, prior to deployment, about his days as a trucker in California. He was from Red Bluff. I picked his brain about truck driving from then on, and always thought, I could do that. I always think about the last time I saw him alive, and while I was recently driving to Red Bluff with a Walmart load, I thought, yeah, this is for him.

Soldier to Trucker

But in the last couple days of May while home for three days, I experienced chest pains. They went away, so I brushed it off and hit the road again. But while on my way to Pueblo CO, I experienced them again. Then again at a truck stop in Monument, CO, as I was about to take a shower. I told the attendant he better call 911. They took me to UCHealth in Colorado Springs and hospitalized me. After an angioplasty, blood tests and an echocardiogram, they found that my heart was healthy, for a 57 year old male. The Doc said it was probably my Combat PTSD and added stress of my new job trucking. So they discharged me with a clean bill of health.

After that, I was stuck at the truck stop in Monument, Colorado for 11 days, trying to get approved by my company to get back on the road. Finally I got back on the road, but while traveling back to Phoenix, the chest pains hit me again. This time I felt faint and pain in my right arm.

I thought that I might have COVID-19, so when I got back to Phoenix, my supervisor had me park the truck at the Operations Center and empty it out. I went to the VA Hospital to get tested for COVID. Meanwhile, I was still having chest pains. My covid test was negative and again doctors told me that my pain was probably due to stress. But the pains were coming more frequent. I continued having pains daily, so I began logging my pains on a legal pad. I scanned several pages of from my running log entries and sent them to my Primary Care Doctor at the VA via Secure Messaging on “My Healthy Vet”. I finally got a response a few days later from a nurse that said, “Per the Doctor’s orders, if veteran is having chest pains, then go to the ER”.

Again, I went to the VA ER. Unfortunately the pains wouldn’t happen in the ER. The doctor seemed to think I was crazy for logging all of my chest pains. She said I needed to follow up with my primary care doctor, but I told her that he just tells me to go to the ER when I’m having these pains. Her response: “Well, you need to FIRE your primary care doctor! So out of two visits to the Phoenix VA ER, all I got was a referal to a social worker for stress management resources. They were just to busy with Covid patients and stringent protocols.

I went home, unable to work, and as the chest pains continued, I started feeling my pulse when they hit me and to my shock, I could feel my heart skipping beats. So I went on Amazon and ordered a home ECG device. On the evening that I received the device, I was able to recorded my heart with two leads on my chest and stomach and it did, in fact, show that I had an irregular heart rhythm.  That was July 2nd, 2020. I sent a pdf to my VA doctor via secure messaging. I didn’t hear anything for a week, and finally I got a call from Cardiology at the Phoenix VA. They said they couldn’t get me a heart monitor until Aug. 11th, that was about 31 days away. Meanwhile, these chest pains and episodes of rapid and irregular heart beats were becoming more and more excruciating. 

I called the VA Community Care number and they said I needed to have a scheduled consult over 28 days away before I can be qualified to see a doctor outside the VA system…I told them…I DO!! They put me on hold and the guy came back and simply said, call this guy, bla, bla, bla. So, I called that guy, and he just said I needed to call 911 when I have the pains, otherwise, he can’t do anything. So I had thre REALLY bad ones in a row, last Sunday evening (July 12th, 2020), I couldn’t even talk, so my girlfriend called 911. The paramedics arrived in force and took me to Abrazo Arrowhead Hospital in Glendale, AZ, where they admitted me for having a slightly elevated Troponin level.

The next day after having a mild episode in the hospital, a Cardiologist (Dr. Todd James) came into my room and said I had arrhythmia and needed a Holter Monitor. I told him the VA has one for me on Aug. 11th, but he said I needed one sooner than that. He prescribed me 25 MG of metoprolol, a beta blocker and I received a referral for his office on my discharge. I immediately sent this to my primary care Doc at the VA, via secure messaging, thinking finally…I can see a cardiologist!

But here’s the catch. I can’t go see him because the VA has to approve the outside care, and that has to be initiated by my primary care VA Doctor. So all week I have been having really bad episodes of tachycardia, followed by extreme pain as my heart cries for oxygen. My poor girlfriend has to watch helplessly as I lie on the bed and squirm in pain for two to four minutes. After the episodes I am completely wiped out. Durring the day, I have lost all my energy to complete just menialest of tasks. I find myself mostly lying in bed, waiting for the inevitable, excruciating, episodes of pain.

I honestly don’t think I can make it to Aug. 11th, 2020. I’m just sitting here at home. I can’t drive a truck and my company will probably let me go when they finally realize I won’t be back anytime soon. I even surrendered my car to the finance company because I can’t make the payment. I tried so hard to get here and now it all seems to be going away. The episodes are getting unbearable. Even on the beta blocker medication, they still come for me. When I feel my heart and chest getting tight, I know it’s coming, I just never know exactly when. Now, durring the episodes, I find myself praying for God to just stop my heart and end it. I have thought about taking a long, one-way walk in the Arizona desert. I find myself thinking, dying of heat exposure and dehydration would be a God send compared to this.

I know I’m probably not the only Veteran suffering, and I’m guessing I have it easy compared to what other Vets might be going through.  I also know many of the VA staff (boots on the ground) are doing their best.  I think this is a management failure and of course covid19 did not help the situation. I just hope I can get treatment, soon before that hope fades completely.

The reality is that even when August 11th, 2020 rolls around and I get my monitor, the VA cardiology department still has to process the data and determine a course of treatment. How long must I wait for that?

So I feel damned either way. Meanwhile there’s a Cardiologist outside the VA system ready to help me now if only he were allowed. It’s very frustrating, very frustrating indeed.

Thanks for listening,

-Stephen Crowley
Former US Army SGT
216th MI Ground Surveillance & Reconnoissance Platoon
OIF, FOB Warrior, KIRKUK, IRAQ 2005

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