Like many veterans, I have a love/hate relationship with the VA.

The Department of Veterans Affairs sends me a check every month for the parts of my knees that won’t grow back, the metal screen in my stomach, the various screws and pins they cobbled me together with, and they even put up the cash to let me finish my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  They also make headlines frequently for hanging up on suicidal veterans, leaving people on waiting lists for treatment for so long that they die, and possibly even infecting hundreds of veterans with HIV.  Maybe love/hate isn’t strong enough.  I’ve spent more hours in VA waiting rooms than I spent cleaning my rifle before turning it back in to the armory – and if your experience in the military was anything like mine, we’re talking a lot of lost hours.

The closest large VA medical center to me is about two hours away with traffic, so I tend to keep to civilian doctors now that I live in Georgia – but I recently ran into a situation that left with without much choice but to make the trek.

I woke up on Friday morning with a large spot taking up a good portion of my vision.  It looked a bit like I’d been staring at the sun for a few hours, with the spot flashing white each time I blinked.  I stumbled around my house a bit, honestly assuming I just wasn’t awake enough to see properly yet, before slowly coming to the difficult realization that the majority of the vision in my right eye was either gone or too blurry to be of use.  I couldn’t focus on the screen of my phone, the lights in my living room hurt, and the only way I could log into my computer was by closing my right eye to give me a clear view of the buttons on the keyboard.

As I’ve written about before, I spend a few nights a week training with a group of martial artists that meet in a local basement.  We don’t swing for the fences when we spar, but we all know why we’re there.  It’s not terribly uncommon to go home with a jaw that hurts to chew, or a puffy right eye.  Having spent the night prior sparring in that very basement, I suddenly realized I may have torn or detached my retina… a fear many fighters have at one time or another.  I got dressed and headed for the local urgent care center, only to have them confirm my fears.

Unfortunately, with my insurance, the corrective surgery would likely cost between one and three thousand dollars out-of-pocket – a sum of money my current budget deemed both “laughable” and “tragic” before crashing Microsoft Excel and probably laughing at me digitally.  Instead, I decided, I would try my luck with the dreaded VA hospital in Decatur, just on the other side of Atlanta.

To my surprise, they said they could see me right away (I was delighted to learn that they take going blind as seriously as I do) so my wife and I packed up the car and started the lengthy drive for what I assumed would be an overwhelmingly negative experience.  The last time I saw a VA doctor, I had two slipped discs in my lower back; I waited for three hours to be seen for two minutes by a man who suggested I “let him know if anything I try works because” his “wife has back problems too,” before tossing me a prescription and sending me on my way.  My wife, who worked briefly in a past life as a nurse’s assistant, felt she needed to make me promise that I wouldn’t let a VA doctor “cut into my eye” without exploring all of my options.  Suffice to say, neither of us expected a very fruitful visit.

Thanks to Atlanta traffic, the drive ended up taking nearly three hours and I reached the packed waiting room for the eye clinic at the sprawling Decatur, Georgia facility with only an hour and a half left before they closed for the day.  Glancing around at the room full of patients waiting to be seen for eye glasses and the like, I immediately wondered if we’d made the drive for nothing.  I pulled my phone out of my pocket, closed my right eye, and began searching for cheap local hotel rooms so I could try coming back the next morning, when a pleasant woman’s voice called my name.

It didn’t take long for the tech I met to ascertain that something was seriously wrong inside my right eye, but in order to figure out exactly what it was, they would need to run a slew of tests.  I couldn’t help but notice her wince as she reviewed the results of the first one, before returning to her previously pleasant demeanor and asking a doctor to review it.  Suddenly, I was ushered into another room for more tests.  Before I knew it, there were three doctors, all incredibly pleasant and patient with me, huddled around the Hogwarts looking contraptions they use to peer inside your eyeball, each exchanging side-eyed glances between polite statements about how well I was doing.

It wasn’t until just then that I realized I was getting so much attention because they were worried about what they’d found.

The top image is the retina in my bad eye, the bottom is the retina in my good one.

For three more hours, each of the doctors poked and prodded me, shining flashlights into my eye, taking pictures with elaborate contraptions and asking me to draw the shape of my blind spot.  While I was so wrapped up in self-pity, annoyance and discomfort, I almost didn’t notice the rest of the staff going home for the day.  The fact that this team of doctors had decided to remain at work for my sake became impossible to ignore when they needed to insert an IV.  They hoped to inject me with a dye that would permit them to view how blood was traveling through my eye.  Despite the room full of doctors, none of them had inserted an IV any time recently… and none of them wanted to try now.  I listened as two of the most intelligent and educated young women I’ve ever encountered tried to pleasantly argue over who would do the sticking before one young doctor drew the proverbial short straw and was left with the unenviable task.

“I’ll never take a nurse for granted again,” she whispered to me as she pressed the needle into a vein in my arm.  For the record, she did an excellent job.

Another hour or so of testing proved worth it, when they came to the conclusion that my retina isn’t actually torn.  Instead, it’s fat and full of fluids, just like me.  The doctors believe it is the result of an unlucky combination of a prescription of prednisone I was on recently for a poisonous spider bite, high blood pressure and stress.  In effect, over the past few months I’ve managed to stress myself literally blind, and in pursuit of a cure, I would have let a Georgia doctor cut and laser his way through my face if I hadn’t been too broke to let him.

Two of the doctors stuck around with me as the other three that had been a part of the team gathered their belongings to head home.  They explained that, through a lifestyle change, it was possible that I could regain vision in my right eye, though not a sure thing.  They wanted to give me six weeks to get my act together and see if that worked before resorting to surgery.  I’ll be honest, I was a bit disappointed.  I had hoped for a magic pill, or even a magical procedure.  Telling me to try taking up meditation was the last thing I’d expected when I’d started the trip… but then, everything about my experience at the Eye Clinic inside the Atlanta VA Medical Center was nothing like I’d expected.

Five doctors, whose names I was too self-centered to ask for, stayed for hours after the clinic closed to help me find out what was wrong with my vision, offer suggestions (like keeping one eye closed as I write), and to come up with a treatment plan.  Five people who missed dinner with their husbands or wives, skipped their favorite TV shows and fell behind on whatever needed to get done after work.  Five people I lump into my frequent exclamations about how awful the VA system is.

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I realize that there are crappy employees at the VA.  Some of them were from the start, others grew jaded by years of being understaffed and overworked.  I realize the VA as a system needs an overhaul and that they are failing veterans all over the country.  I am frustrated, angry, and even disgusted by the way many vets have been treated by the Department of Veteran Affairs… but yesterday I saw another side of the issue.  I saw VA employees value my well-being over their own happiness.  These people didn’t know me, they just knew I was a veteran that needed help.

One positive experience hasn’t changed the way I view the VA, but it has changed the way I view the men and women that work within it.  Some need to be fired, others need to be trained, most need some help, and a few – like the doctors at the Atlanta VA Eye Clinic – ought to be thanked.

I’ll be seeing those doctors again, and this time I’ll only be blinded by this damn eye, instead of by the silent, brooding anger and self-pity that kept me from truly appreciating their efforts in real-time.  I’m not done fighting to get this eye back, and for once, I’m glad I’ve got the VA to look out for me.

Get it?  Look out for me?

I’d like to say a sincere thank you to the men and women that serve America’s veterans to the best of their abilities, work extra hours, go that extra mile to help someone who needs it.  Your organization deserves better leadership and more resources, and I hope you get it – for the sake of all veterans.


Image courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs