How the VA Resurrected My Uncle

My Uncle Willie, the fourth and youngest boy of my grandma’s litter, has always struck me as a touch “off.” Compared to his brothers—my clever and scholarly father, my robust and street smart Uncle Tim, and the vibrant, mischievous Uncle Mike—Willie was quiet, unambitious, and the years seemed to be piling inertly upon him. Gorgeous Uncle Mike disappeared in a boating accident when I was 8, and Uncle Willie seemed to follow him into the depths. In his mid-fifties he moved back in with my grandparents in Bakersfield, California; my grandfather was a Christian Scientist and forbade drinking in the house, so Willie spent his days watching television and driving Grandma around town. When Grandpa died Willie took to drinking again, stashing the cans in his backroom until the hallway was ripe with the rank spice of festering hops. Willie’s weight climbed, his words diminished, and his spirit sunk behind his eyes. Diabetes came and settled in his pancreas. He even started substituting beeps, squeaks, and grunts for responses to our questions. We all started to give up on him. He was always there, but attempts to draw him out were ineffectual. We included his silent presence but he slipped further and further away from us. What could we do? We felt the helplessness of watching someone who would not choose life, even if we could offer something like it to him, as best as we could. Our hands were extended in front of his blind eyes and he could not sense them. It was he who had to reach up and place his hand in ours and use his own legs to stand. We could only hold him up for so long. He was, after all, over 350 pounds.

One day Willie was driving Grandma to the grocery store in Bakersfield, and he passed out and collided with oncoming traffic. Miraculously, most of the involved parties escaped unscratched; this is, except for Willie, who could not walk out of the car. In the ambulance on the way to Bakersfield Memorial Hospital the EMTs discovered that his toes were necrotic, gangrenous from diabetic complication. Amputation was the only answer.

Willie lost his leg on Christmas Eve, 2009. The surgery was performed at Bakersfield Memorial and for several months it was not clear whether Veterans’ Insurance, garnered from Willie’s few years stationed in Turkey during the Korean War, would mobilize. The family worried who would take him in. Nobody wanted to. Fighting commenced.

After several months of strain, good news came through: the VA Hospital near the UCLA Medical Center transferred Willie into their care and fulfilled the insurance costs from the amputation. They kept Willie there as he moved through rehab and grew through several different prosthetics as his wound, or as he loved to refer to it, his stump, adjusted through healing.

We visited Willie in the VA on the day after Christmas 2010: my father, brother, mother and I. We were nervous, joking, apprehensive, as we sought parking outside Willie’s wing. The hallway on the first floor was ripe with hospital sterility and dinginess; fluorescent lights marked dispensers of Purell hand sanitizer installed along the walls. We lined up and pumped it into our palms. A woman mopping the floor outside the elevator pointed us to Willie’s room and we popped our heads in, expecting the worst.

But we saw something we would never have guessed in a hundred gajillion years. Willie, dressed cleanly and about 100 pounds lighter than I’d ever seen him, perched bedside with a vibrant, welcoming smile. He ambled easily over to our group. He offered embraces and handshakes and asked each of us how we were. He made eye contact. He said, “It’s mealtime. Let’s go down to the cafeteria—it will be easier to talk down there. We can get coffee or something.” We passed the woman who had been mopping before and she asked if Willie and I were father and daughter because we looked so much alike. No, I said, but Uncle and Niece are good too! She laughed and agreed.

To say the least, similarity, laughter and agreement were not what we expected to find in the VA that day.

In the cafeteria several veterans were scattered around tables, eating, watching television, and in line for food. Willie sat at the head of our table and he chattered on and on. We sat stunned. He must have spoken more words in the half hour we sat with him than I had ever heard from him in 32 years of my life. He talked about the Bingo games at the VA, the planned excursions, the food, the recreation staff, the rehab lessons, the prosthesis fittings. He talked about talking: apparently, having to explain his condition and bodily sensations to an endless stream of doctors and nurses had triggered his tongue into survival mode. Then Willie talked about the future: the VA will provide him with pension and housing, a bank account and an allowance. Willie said, “A part-time job would be icing on the cake.” I thought my father would faint with happiness and relief.

From what all of us can tell, Willie has received not only a new leg, but a whole new personality, a vocabulary, a light in his eyes, and a heft in his handshake. His prothesis must have a spring in it somewhere. The VA was the extended hand that his eyes finally opened to. He grasped what was offered. He stood; he stands. Maybe it’s the mysterious blessing of hitting utter bottom. We can’t know; but we do know that Willie has got a whole new chance at being on the planet for the time he’s gifted to be here. I thought of Jesus’ koan: you must lay down your life in order to save it. Willie has found new life out of his lost leg. This most awful tragedy is the best thing that has ever happened to him and we all feel the light of this resurrection.

Mindful of Los Angeles traffic, we excused ourselves after a while and bade farewell to Willie. We filed out through the VA hallway, stopping to squirt Purell hand sanitizer into our palms. We didn’t stop to visit my father’s father in the Veteran’s cemetery. After all, Willie might be living on the VA grounds for a while and we’re actually looking forward to seeing him again next time.

That’s my family’s Christmas miracle, with help from Uncle Sam and a benefit system that, though widely reviled and admittedly serpentine, has actually saved my family from not only the poorhouse but a bitter and embattled descent into it. To everyone who might be inclined to turn their nose up at what the government does have to offer those diligent enough to access it (or those lucky enough to have families who can do so) I humbly offer my family’s story, and a response from the patron saint of busted legs, Tiny Tim: “God Bless Us Everyone.”

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