First, let me start by saying that I absolutely do count my blessings. I consider myself fortunate indeed, and I do live quite “comfortably” (more on that later). I do not want anyone to think that I’m whining, or a victim, but sometimes, a girl’s just gotta rant…
I joined the Navy in August of 2005, was stationed at the ASW base in Point Loma in the spring of 2006, and had my first back spasm that fall. I was lying in bed for about 8 hours, not knowing what was wrong, not knowing how to make the pain stop, when I finally realized that I needed to get up and get help. As soon as I tried to get out of bed, pain like I’d never experienced. I screamed. I screamed and screamed. The window in my barracks room was open, and I was mortified that people could hear me, but something had to be done. Just as I was able to roll out of bed, my roommate came in and told me she was going to help get me to the NMT office for help. I gingerly walked down the stairs, across the street, and into the office, with her help (thank God my room was so close…). I was in tears, I couldn’t bend, twist, or stand up straight. I walked into the office and told them I was in pain and I didn’t know what was happening. One of the Petty Officers there pressed his hand into my back to see what was wrong and I had to clamp my own hands over my mouth to muffle my scream. They called an ambulance, and the EMTs put a backboard up against my back, strapped me on, and tilted me back. It was excruciating, but once I was lying down again, the pain subsided a little.
When we got to Balboa Hospital, the doctors gave me intravenous fluids, painkillers, and muscle relaxers. I was told that due to the severity of the spasm, and how long it had been happening, the muscles had separated from my spine. I had sprained my back. I was told I’d have to keep it strong to avoid re-injury, so I worked out three times a day, every day. 20 minutes on the elliptical in the late morning, weights, and stretching. Class PT, usually volleyball or mock PRTs in the early afternoon. Another 20 minutes on the elliptical after class in the evening, more weights, and more stretching. I was in the best shape of my life, then I went to the ship.
I reported to the USS Chancellorsville in the spring of 2007, we were in the yards, so there wasn’t a whole lot of typical work going on. I painted, sanded, did deck grinding, and lots of cleaning. We pulled out in the fall, and our underway schedule started. We went up to Canada in the winter, that was my first real underway, and it sucked. It was so cold, but I dealt with it, made the best of it. The following summer, we went on WESTPAC, my first, and while it was difficult (I genuinely considered not going because of the abuse I had been suffering at the hands of my division), I adjusted well, and I even got together with my now-fiancé at the very end (while we were in port! No hanky-pankys on the ship).
The winter was uneventful, but the next summer, we SURGEd, and that’s when the real problems started. The metal decks and steep stairwells started to wear on my knees, I was noticing pain and stiffness developing, but just dealt with it. That fall, we went back into the yards, but we had to take part in RAMs (Random Antiterrorism Measures). We were short on gun qualifications, and didn’t have enough topside rovers, I stood 11 hours of watch in one day, from 1130-1630, 1730-1830, 1930-2030, and 2130-0130. That was the day my knees finally gave out. By the end of my last watch, they were the size of melons, so swollen and stiff with fluid that I couldn’t bend them.
After the initial pain and swelling subsided, I started realizing that my chronic symptoms had become much, much worse. My knees creaked and cracked, they caught and slipped, I could no longer bend them and bear weight, I had to choose. Now, everyone knows that when lifting, you’re supposed to use your legs, but that was too painful, I started lifting with my back. Being pretty strong, and working out with the VBSS team, I was no stranger to manual labor, and I had no issue working with the boys doing the dirty work, but after a while, I began to notice that my back was causing me pain too. I would be stiff in the morning, and it was painful getting in and out of my rack, lifting and bending became harder, and my back spasms returned. I also developed sciatica, which caused shooting pain down my legs (mostly my right) and numbness in my feet. I lost all reflex in my right knee.
I expressed my concerns to Doc, but she was busy, tough, and an FMF Corpsman, she didn’t have the patience to deal with complaints like mine, so I dealt with it. We got a new Doc, and while he was a little more approachable, he was less competent, and wasn’t able to help me much. I developed dishydrosis in my hands and feet, and some kind of eczema on my legs, but nothing he gave me helped. He did give me Toradol injections when my back was really hurting, which was several times a week, sometimes more than once a day. He also gave me Mobic, which kind of helped.
I began to get depressed, I didn’t like being in pain all the time, it made me angry, and I would lash out at people, who would in turn call me a bitch and treat me like crap, only they didn’t know that I was only angry because I hurt. In 2010, it got to the point where I demanded to be seen by someone else. The only problem was, we were in the middle of the ocean doing RIMPAC, and the only option was going to the USS Ronald Reagan, but I took it. Doc told me that if I was as bad as I was saying I was, they might send me home, so I packed my stuff, and waited to be allowed to go. People started saying I was malingering, that I was just trying to get off of the ship, because I “packed too much.” It made me even angrier.
I went to the Reagan, told them what was going on, and found out that I wasn’t supposed to be getting Toradol and Mobic because they were both the same type of NSAID. So they took me off Toradol, the only thing that gave me relief for a few hours after a dose. I lost it. I started crying, I told the doctors that I needed better treatment, and I begged them for some real help. They sent me to one of the Chaplains, a rabbi, who was very kind and understanding, he wrote several e-mails to my command requesting that I be seen both by Balboa and Fleet Mental Health. I’m not religious, but he offered to pray for me, and I said yes. He prayed for me in his stateroom, and he asked YHWH to help me. I appreciated that beyond measure.
I was sent back to the ship, much to the hateful satisfaction of those who said I was “faking it,” but they had received the correspondence from the Reagan and my chain of command understood that I needed more help. I was referred to FMH and sent to Balboa for an MRI on my right knee. After a few weeks of seeing a psychiatrist (a nice Commander who happened to be from New Hampshire, which was a nice shared bond, seeing as I’m from Maine), I was doing better, I was on medication, and it was generally easier to deal with the pain when I could go home, sleep on a comfortable bed, and my wonderful boyfriend would rub my back until it didn’t hurt. I received the results of my MRI, and went for a LIMDU assessment, where I was told I would never be able to serve at sea again.
When I received my LIMDU orders, my LCPO was disappointed, now that I was leaving, it was clear that I was actually an asset to the division, and he needed me for PAR (I forget what the acronym stands for, but it was a big ASW review of maintenance, operations, and training). I told him I would stay, but that I needed to get out of the duty section, I simply couldn’t stand for hours at a time anymore, my back and my knees couldn’t take it. He said there was nothing he could do, so I said I was sorry, but that I had to leave.
So I reported to TPU (worst command ever, don’t go there, ever…) and eventually got placed in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) where I served my LIMDU time. When my six months expired, I was still using a cane, in physical therapy, and wasn’t nearly “cured,” but I got stuck in a rather unfortunate loophole, one that did not work in my favor: if one is unable to finish an entire six month LIMDU period before their EAOS, they are not entitled to go on LIMDU (even if it’s a renewal). I asked if I could get a Med Board instead, but they told me I had to complete two consecutive LIMDU periods to get a Med Board. I ended up being honorably discharged, which requires being fit for full duty, and they made me sign my fit for full paperwork with a pen in one hand and my cane in the other. I was told the VA would take care of me.
I was discharged in August of 2011, I had filed my VA paperwork in July, and I didn’t receive a response until about eight months later. I still don’t have a rating on everything! The really fun part is that they are making me start all over again with my treatments. I had to go on the basic prescriptions for pain, depression, and my eczema thing (it hasn’t actually been diagnosed, no one knows what it is).
While I was in the Navy, I was also treated for cervical dysplasia, and had several colposcopies, I hadn’t had one in a couple of years and got one from my PCP, but the results were inconclusive, and now she won’t let me get one until September, and if it comes back normal, I can’t get another one for three years! My mother had cervical dysplasia, she missed a pap once, and the next time it came around, she had stage four cervical cancer and had to have a hysterectomy. I’m 27, I don’t have kids yet, I’m not even married yet, my fertility is a very important thing to me right now, and I swear to God, if I get cancer because the damn VA didn’t want to pay for a pap every six months, I will sue the shit out of them.
I don’t agree with suing, I think we’re a sue-happy society and that people need to take personal accountability, but I can’t get health insurance because I have a pre existing condition. Even if I could, I couldn’t afford to pay the hundreds of dollars a month for private health care. The VA is all I have right now. The VA is all a lot of people have, and it sucks. There’s too many of us, and not enough funding for them. The VA makes monsters out of decent people because veterans can’t get the care they need. The VA doesn’t cover chiropractic work, which was one of the most effective treatments I had for my back while I was in the Navy, I’m also told acupuncture works wonders, but they don’t cover that either. Luckily, my fiancé received an e-stim at work, which is another therapy I’ve done, and that helps. I have a heating pad, my fiancé rubs my back when it’s sore or stiff, and he even bought me a hot tub last Christmas. Maybe I was “spoiled” by Navy medicine supplying everything, down to over-the-counter meds, but I feel like the VA doesn’t provide us with shit. I had to wait eight hours in the ER once, only to be given an IV with some painkillers and then discharged. I still haven’t been seen for my knee, my back, or my eczema, which has now spread to my arms. Dermatology won’t even see me until I go back and try hydrocortisone. Really? You think I haven’t tried that yet? I’ve had this since ’09-’10, you think I haven’t been there, done that?
I worry that my relationship may fall apart, I get angry, withdrawn, and it’s hard to want to be intimate with someone when you’re always in pain, or itching, or sad, or all of the above. To top it all off is the stress. I am always stressed about something, and I seriously feel like it’s killing me. Last night, I couldn’t shut my brain off about a school project, and I didn’t get to sleep until 7am, and was woken up by my dog at 10:30am. I’m not even tired now, and it’s 3am! I just can’t relax, I can’t be pain-free, I can’t be normal. “Normal,” for me, is pain. I get back spasms now, and I know they’re just as bad as they used to be, but they don’t register as hurting as much because I’m used to it! That is so messed up! My PCP in the Navy told me that I was the most jacked up 25 year old she’d ever seen, and that if I didn’t get 80% service connected disability from the VA, she’d be shocked. Well, I started at 60%, but they did upgrade me to 80% this year (with back pay), and I haven’t even been evaluated on the main issues yet.
This is the life of a disabled veteran, I guess: pain and stress, stress and pain…