Veteran Enlists Treasure Coast Hospice Care
Sir Fidel Fernando and Princess Jewel Stone greeted us at the front door, tails wagging and nails clacking on the tile floor as the two friendly pugs raced around our feet. A few steps down the hallway, we entered Robert’s world, a bedroom transformed to meet his physical challenges with electric bed and state-of-the-art hydraulic patient lift.
Propped up in bed, supported by brightly striped pillows as he watched TV, Robert smiled to greet Treasure Coast Hospice social worker Elaine Newell and myself. Kathy, Robert’s wife of 34 years, joined us and shared the journey that brought Robert into Treasure Coast Hospice care four months ago.
“I had the TCH brochure for a long time,” Kathy said, recalling her fear and misperception when a social worker at the VA hospital first encouraged her to investigate supportive hospice care. “You hear the word ‘hospice’ and think it means imminent death.… People don’t know how helpful hospice can be.”
Robert came to the United States from Italy at age 10, and grew up in a rough South Bronx neighborhood. He thinks being drafted into the Army in 1966 at the age of 20 probably saved his life.
After six months stateside, he was sent to Germany to train as a demolition expert and in land-mine warfare. He speaks vividly about routinely handling dynamite and using plastic explosives, without a detonating cap, to heat his food.
Robert was honorably discharged three years later as a non-commissioned officer and returned to his family in New York.
In the Army, Robert was never deployed to a combat zone, but he has been waging his own private war since being diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, four years ago. He has gradually lost the use of his legs and arms and reports his vocal muscles now are weakening. He demonstrated how he can still control his neck muscles to manipulate his electric wheelchair, but tearfully acknowledges the disease will progress until he is completely paralyzed.
Surprised to learn in 2008 that the VA had conceded that ALS is a disease related to military service, Robert went through numerous evaluations and in 2009 was deemed a “100% Disabled Veteran.”
Although the VA system can be unwieldy, Robert is grateful for the numerous veteran benefits he and his family receive. Still, he is haunted by the mystery of how his illness may have begun so many decades ago as he “played with fire” as a demolitions expert.
A religious man, Robert spoke freely of death and the afterlife.
“Everything that lives will die,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die, I am afraid of the suffering along the way.”
Robert expressed deep gratitude for the love of his wife and two adult children, his neighbors, medical personnel and his Treasure Coast Hospice team, which includes a nurse, social worker, hospice aide and chaplain, who all help to ease his fears.
Asked what he would tell other veterans facing illness and difficult decisions, Robert exclaimed, “If you need help, call Treasure Coast Hospice!”
— Lori Posdal