Last week The Washington Post featured an article about an influx of tragic suicides occurring in veterans hospital parking lots. The so called parking lot suicides have resulted in 19 deaths between October 2017 and November 2018, and one of the hospitals at which this has occurred is the very one I visit for my own treatment of PTSD and other issues.
I am talking about the Minneapolis VA, and my experience there has been a total disaster.
After a lengthy stint at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC between 2009/10, I was medically retired from the army. My VA disability rating is 100%, and so in their eyes I am unemployable due to my issues. Upon discharge I was placed on the army’s temporary disabled retirement list (TDRL), and years later I was placed on their permanent list. I bring this all up because it’s a good marker for showing that I deal with my fair share of issues, and to say the VA has dropped the ball when it comes to my treatment would be a massive understatement.
My stay at Walter Reed was not a pleasant one, and while in retrospect I am ashamed of my actions, I will admit that I had my share of suicide attempts. In one of my moments of traumatic weakness I overdosed on Zyprexa. This attempt placed me in an ICU for five or so days, of which I have zero memory of.
Over a year after I first arrived in DC, in late April of 2010, I was formally discharged from the army and sent on my merry way back to my home state of Minnesota. This was mere months after one of my serious suicide attempts, and I was heading back to a place where I had little in the way of family or friends to take care of me. I was moving into an apartment alone, and heading into a world that my traumatized self wasn’t ready for.
Right away I made contact with the Minneapolis VA and was given a social worker, psychiatrist, and primary care doctor. What soon followed was years of headaches as the VA constantly made things worse for me.
One of the first incidents that opened my eyes to how bad things could be occurred soon after I had moved back to Minnesota. At one point the VA had me take a multiple choice test to see how depressed I was, or something (I don’t fully remember the exact purpose of the test). A week or so after taking it I received a call asking if I had answered the questions honestly, to which I responded that I had. I was then told by the lady on the other end of the call that she didn’t believe me. In her words my results made me out to be more depressed than the worst of their most clinically depressed inpatients and that I shouldn’t be functioning.
Keep in mind I was fresh out of a military hospital in which I was a patient in an inpatient ward at Walter Reed called Ward 54. I had recently attempted to kill myself, and I was still very much suicidal. In almost every way I wasn’t a functioning human being. I was a recluse inside my apartment who for more years than I’d like to admit, kept to myself and allowed the burning of every relationship I had.
Now here I was being told by someone at the VA that I was too depressed to be believed. I remember after this call I broke down bawling my eyes out in a fit of rage and sadness.
Not long afterwards I began dealing with panic attacks. I’d never had one before, and so the symptoms were new to me. The very first time I had one it felt like I was dying and I was convinced I was having a serious medical emergency. I drove myself to the VA hospital sometime past midnight and made my way to the emergency room.
The nurses on duty weren’t taking my issues seriously. They got me a room and did a few tests, but they never once suggested it was just a panic attack, nor did they offer to call down an on duty emergency psychiatrist for me. So in my eyes it felt like they didn’t care to find what the issue was. And as anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows, especially the very first time, it absolutely feels like the end of the world. It is a dreadful feeling and I legitimately thought I was dying. I couldn’t breath and my throat felt like it was closing.
Sadly no matter how bad I felt, it wasn’t worthwhile to the nurses on duty to calm me, and instead they began to literally mock me.
I was in a room next to the nurses station and what I heard through the open door was them mimicking my voice and outright making jokes.
You read that correctly. A medically retired veteran with a history of suicide, PTSD, and a myriad of other issues was being openly mocked by emergency room nurses. I about lost my fricken mind.
The very next day I made contact with a patient advocate. The woman I met was incredibly helpful and she would go on to raise a fit about what had occurred.
The nurse in question was forced to apologize to my face in what was one of the most awkward encounters I’ve ever experienced, but she wasn’t fired. To this day I still believe she should have been.
What would then follow was years of abuse and mistakes that have gotten me to the point where I avoid the VA at all costs.
Once when I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality, I decided to open up to my mental health physician at the time. I confided in her about what I was dealing with and told her she was one of the only people to know. I had remained in the closet for my entire life and was nervous and confused. I told her I didn’t want my discussion of sexuality to end up in my notes, to which she promised not to write it down, as well as a promise that she wouldn’t tell any of my other providers.
Fast-forward one week and at our next appointment she admitted to me that she had told my other providers, as well as the other doctors in the mental health wing of the hospital, because she thought it in my best interest.
Doctors and nurses I never interacted with now all knew I was gay. A secret I didn’t want out as I myself hadn’t fully come to terms with it. Why would any doctor feel the need to gossip about a patient, and that is what it was, as there was absolutely no need for everyone to know. I stormed out of my meeting with her and never saw her again. I eventually got a very apologetic voicemail from her as she had come to realize what she did was wrong, but I never called her back.
Absurdly there are even more firsthand accounts of incompetent doctors, but I’d like to keep this piece around 2000 words. Needless to say, but the VA healthcare system is a mess.
The pharmacy is especially bad.
I battle a physical issue that requires a monthly shipment of medical supplies. If I so much as go a day without this product, I’m gunna have a bad time. So of course the VA messes this up every chance they get. I’m not even sure it’d be exaggeration at this point to suggest that in my almost ten years of relying on the VA, they’ve messed up my prescriptions in more months than those they haven’t.
One time the maker of the specific brand of product I receive rebranded and for a time the VA stopped getting supplied by them; so instead of switching me to a new brand of product, the VA didn’t find it worthwhile to inform me. I had just refilled my prescription and instead of telling me it wasn’t coming, they just let me find out on my own when my shipment never arrived. I got seriously screwed over by this as I subsequently ran out of what I had on hand.
Making matters worse is that my options for this particular product aren’t even great, but since I’m limited to what the VA supplies, my choices are limited. I’ve gone so far as to look into getting things with my own funds, but it’d require hundreds per month, so like many veterans, I’m locked into a subpar product for a very serious issue.
Funny enough, from what I’ve been told by a pharmacy tech, it’d be cheaper for the government and thus the taxpayer if the VA gave me a monthly stipend to buy my own supplies, as they pay nearly triple what I would pay on a variety of medical supply websites.
My own partner who is also a medically retired veteran (we actually met at the VA, so I guess some good things happen there) sees a specialist every four months. Well, her specialist suddenly retired and the VA never deemed it appropriate to tell her, and so when she went in to her next scheduled appointment months later, she discovered her doctor was no longer there, and so she was sent back home. It took awhile before she was given another specialist to see.
Seriously. How bad can things get that A) the appointment wasn’t canceled, and B) they never thought to inform a patient that their doctor was no longer around. Had she been informed sooner, she could have found a specialist in the months leading up to the next appointment.
It’s absolutely mind-blowing just how incompetent the VA can be. Hell, I once received somebody else’s cancer meds in the mail. It was a bottle with only three pills and upon googling what it was, I discovered it was some heavy duty stuff. This of course means some guy who was relying on these meds to arrive on time was yet another victim of the VA’s many failures.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually met another veteran who doesn’t have some horror story to tell about their experiences with Veteran Affairs; something that parking lot suicides are heartbreakingly emblematic of. Given my state of mind at the time, it’s a miracle I didn’t kill myself nearly ten years ago when I was told I was lying about my depression, or nine years ago when a nurse mocked me as I was at my lowest of lows. Yet sadly, for every veteran that somehow perseveres, there’s another that doesn’t.
America is a country that constantly touts its love for its veterans. But we are also a country with a healthcare provider that constantly lets us down. The VA is a disaster, and it needs to be fixed.
Luckily given all the difficulties spelled out above, I’ve found myself in a position where I get better by the day. I still battle the VA about my prescriptions, and night terrors and PTSD can still rear their ugly heads. I have a recently broken door to testify to that. But after many years of hardships and reclusiveness, I finally put my foot down and worked hard to better myself. Being a published writer is testament to that, but for every veteran like myself who is improving, there is another that is suffering, and such suffering is being exacerbated by a healthcare provider that mocks, abuses, mishandles, and ignores those it has been tasked with aiding, and oh so much more.
It is time for this country to take care of its vets, so please Mr. Trump, make us a priority. We need the help, because we sure as hell aren’t going to get it from those currently tasked with that duty.