Posted on 31 March 2015.
Bainbridge resident Russell Melhorn served 22 years in the United States Navy. During the Vietnam War he was exposed to a heavy dose of Agent Orange, a deadly chemical used by the U.S. military as part of its herbicide warfare program.
Since retiring from the Navy Melhorn’s health has deteriorated. Doctors told him that exposure to Agent Orange damaged the bone marrow in his legs. Over time, that damage, combined with complications from diabetes, necessitated numerous amputations overseen and paid for by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Melhorn, 72, is reluctant to disparage the Navy: “Ninety percent was good, and I try to forget the other 10 percent.” But he said the VA has not been good to him. A partial amputation to his left leg did not heal properly. Melhorn admitted he had maggots in his wound. He said it took six months of requesting medical assistance and finally “blowing up” to get help, which consisted of a complete amputation of his leg. A few years later he said he heard a pop in his other leg and collapsed in the shower. Doctors said his bone marrow “did not resemble bone marrow.” They fully removed his second leg, also up to the groin.
Michael Finley building ramp
Melhorn is on a catheter and relies on an electric wheelchair to move around. The wheelchair is worn looking and makes noises, and about a month ago its elevating function broke. The lift function raises Melhorn 10 inches. Those 10 inches may not sound like much, but they enable him to reach the faucets in his bathroom and the stove in his kitchen. They also are what gets him into bed at night.
When Melhorn’s wheelchair lift failed he called the VA to ask for a repair. He said they contacted the manufacturer but declined to pay the cost of repairing the wheelchair when they learned how much it would be. The VA in Seattle told Melhorn to come for a refitting, giving him an appointment over two months away from the time he called.
Melhorn’s evening caregiver could not lift his 212-pound body into his bed, so Melhorn called the Bainbridge Island Fire Department (BIFD). According to Fire Marshal Luke Carpenter, firefighters assisted Melhorn each night for over three weeks. Finally one member of the department decided to take matters into his own hands. Firefighter and EMT Michael Finley assessed the situation and went to work building a platform with a ramp so that Melhorn could get up to his bed. ProBuild on Bainbridge Island provided the lumber to build it.
When I visited Melhorn in his apartment, his morning caregiver from Visiting Angels, Patty Graham, set up the ramp system for me to see. Melhorn explained that he uses a rope on a post to roll himself over at night. Melhorn and Graham were grateful for Finley’s ingenuity and willingness to help.
Ramp system in Melhorn’s bedroom
But Graham is angry about Melhorn’s situation. She explained that just yesterday the VA had promised to send a car to pick up Melhorn and take him to get his glasses fixed. His glasses are cracked on one side, something I noticed right away when I met him. Both Graham and Melhorn said no one showed to pick him up. “I hear him calling repeatedly to get help,” said Graham. “The VA isn’t taking care of him.”
Graham explained that her four-hour shift ends and 10 a.m. and Melhorn is alone until a second caregiver comes at 6 p.m. “He’s alone all day. Anything could happen. He falls. I’ve come back between shifts to check on him. He gets depressed. Sometimes he says it’s not worth living,” said Graham.
Graham prompted Melhorn, “What happened with your heart medicine and insulin?”
“The Navy said I was cured of my diabetes; then I had a heart attack,” said Melhorn. He said after the heart attack he was supposed to take daily heart medication, but the VA took a month to provide it. He said they also failed to supply him with insulin for his diabetes for a few days.
Melhorn has an appointment with the VA for a new wheelchair fitting on May 4.
Photo of Michael Finley courtesy of BIFD. Other photos by Julie Hall.