Medical Support

Cancer is a terrible disease. Not only does it destroy your body from within, but it will destroy your mind and zap the strength from those around you. I know this because I have been watching a Marine Corp Vietnam Veteran, my husband, fight the battle of his life for the past 15 months. Andy was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer in December 2012 after over two years of going to doctors complaining about his throat only to be told that there was nothing wrong with his throat, but the doctors did decide that he had sleep apnea and needed a C pap machine so that he could sleep without problems. The C pap machine worked and he was able to sleep, but the problems with his throat continued as did his visits to doctors who repeated that there was nothing wrong with his throat.

As a Vietnam Veteran, Andy had shown signs of PTSD, but had never addressed those issues saying that there were guys much more worse off than he was -- he would deal with it on his own. But stress is another terrible disease. Eventually we decided to get some help from the VA Office in Mesa, AZ. Through this office, we learned that even though Andy was not active duty he would be eligible for medical assistance. We applied and were approved for an appointment in 18 months. One night in October 2012, I woke to Andy not being able to breathe properly. I had had enough with doctors passing him along without having a diagnosis or even a possibility of what the cause of the issue was. We headed downtown to the Phoenix VA Hospital Emergency Room at 2:00 am in the morning. Through to a point of exhaustion, the ER doctors probed and prodded Andy. Unable to determine the cause of the problem, they prescribed some steroids that could help with the inflammation and irritation he was experienced and order an appointment with the Ear, Nose and Throat section of the hospital. The testing ordered by ENT led to a biopsy of the tissue in his throat, a PET and an MRI. The biopsy results indicated cancer and the PET confirmed stage three throat cancer in December 2012 (Merry Christmas!).

Andy began radiation and chemotherapy in January 2013 with radiation five days a week and chemotherapy weekly. He had to have his molars removed prior to beginning his treatment because if the radiation damaged his jaw during treatment, they would not be able to remove them and that could cause damage to more of his teeth. Additionally, he was required to have a feeding tube inserted so that he would be able to receive nutrition without using his mouth. After his second chemotherapy treatment, it was determined that he had an allergy to the specific medication used in the chemotherapy treatment and it had to be switched resulting in additional weekly chemotherapy treatments versus the original plan. Andy was a champ through the treatment, he only lost ten pounds and was able to return to work in May 2013, only to have a set back two months later forcing him to take another medical leave of absence. Andy was losing weight and he had a strange odor coming from his throat, he had increased pain in his head and neck, but no one saw a problem. We kept hearing things like "considering what he had been through, he was in great shape", etc. As he continued to deteriorate, I took him back to the VA with similar results. Eventually I pleaded to the physicians assistant who originally suspected there was more going on than sleep apnea and was the person who discovered that Andy had cancer, to see him again.

The PA in ENT took pity on me and saw Andy a few day later only to discover he had developed soft tissue necrosis in his throat. I had no idea what that was; I was only interested in how it was going to be fixed. Two weeks later we returned to the VA to hear the results of the test taken and the plan to fix the situation. We meet with the Director of ENT who bluntly told us that Andy had soft tissue necrosis and the only solution he had was to send him to Palo Alto, CA for reconstructive throat flap surgery. A 12 to 16 hours surgery where a flap of skin and blood vessels would be removed from his forearm, placed in his throat and the blood vessels would be reconnected in his throat. There was a fifty fifty chance that the surgery would be successful. My mind raced, I knew there was no way Andy was healthy enough to go through a twelve hour surgery. He had lost over 20 lbs since returning to work and was still losing weight. His pain was excruciating and he had difficulty swallowing anything, even water.

I did some research and learned that the American Cancer Society recommended hyperbaric oxygen therapy for soft tissue necrosis. I consulted with Andy's radiation therapy doctor, he agreed and offered to take the alternative solution to the VA tumor board for approval of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat the necrosis. A few weeks later, we were approved for 30 hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments at Mountain Vista Hospital Wound Center in East Mesa. On 30 September, Andy had his first HOT. The treatments ran five days a week, Monday through Friday, a 30 mile round trip. The Wound Care Doctor advised that Andy's nutrition was also an integral part of his recovery. It was decided that the feeding tube would have to be reinserted to make sure he was getting sufficient nutrition.

About two weeks into the HOT (hyperbaric oxygen therapy), Andy started having severe pain that could not be handled by the pain medication he was currently being prescribed. Off to the VA Hospital ER again. This time he was placed on an IV drip and admitted. After several days as an inpatient, attempting to manage the pain with no success, Andy was placed on a morphine pump. His pain level was off the charts and he could not ingest anything by mouth. Not even the jello they brought every day. Eventually on the fourth day, he was taken to operating room for a gastrointestinal surgical procedure to insert a new feeding tube. The surgery was not successful due to scarring from the first feeding tube. Discussions were held as to the best way to proceed. By Sunday, Andy had been an inpatient in the Phoenix VA hospital for six days and he had not had any nutrition. When I spoke to his doctor he advised that Andy was drinking Boost. But when I arrived in his room, I learned that the doctor had been misinformed. I had to demand that they provide him with IV Nutrition -- the reason for the delay was because they wanted to get the tube placed and each day he was scheduled for the procedure, he was limited to "nothing by mouth". Andy lost fourteen pounds during his stay in the hospital. His feeding tube was finally placed by Interventional Radiology and he was released on Tuesday evening with a prescription for time released capsules of morphine, which clogged his feeding tube. Another trip to the Phoenix VA Hospital ER and again he was admitted. Interventional Radiology was not pleased that he had been prescribed the medication that he was because it definitely clogged the tube.

The HOT treatments resumed once Andy was released from hospital and he eventually completed 70 treatments. Now we are in a wait and see stage. Unfortunately, he is still too weak to return to work, he still has nothing by mouth except little sips of water to moisten his mouth. We have exhausted all of his vacation, sick and personal leave time from work and has been on long term disability pay since August 2013. We have exhausted our savings and sold all our assets except the home we live in. We drive a 1999 Ford Explorer and pray every day that it does not die; we can't afford a new one. Recently we applied for Social Security disability which we could not do until Andy had been out of work for six months. This disability if approved could begin in three to six months.

Until then we are unable to pay many of our bills. Will you please help so that we don't have to lose our home.

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Rocki Passano 
Mesa, AZ
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