TAMPA — Veteran Robert Fields says he has put up with intense pain and the threat of death or paralysis since August while waiting for the James A. Haley VA Medical Center to schedule corrective spinal surgery.
Now, he has given up.
Unable to schedule surgery at Haley, Fields said he will instead undergo a potentially life-saving operation for a rare condition, ankylosing spondylitis, at a non-VA hospital in Brandon today.
The cost of surgery, Fields said, may bankrupt him.
In what may be the latest sign of a veterans hospital seemingly bursting at the seams, Fields said Haley has ignored his repeated pleas to schedule the surgery.
At one point, Fields said he was told neurologists were simply too busy to immediately fit him into their schedule. So he waited. And waited.
Fields said he has tried to schedule surgery since Aug. 28, when he said his primary care physician with the Department of Veterans Affairs first told him he needed emergency surgery for a deteriorating spine.
"The excuses are always there," said Fields, who served in the Air Force from 1972 to 1977. "It's the way they treat veterans now. Financially, I can't afford to do what I am doing. But I can't wait any longer. I can't stand the pain anymore."
Carolyn Clark, a Haley spokeswoman, confirmed that Fields requires neurological surgery on the spine but denied that the VA delayed scheduling the procedure.
She said on Wednesday that it is Fields' fault the surgery hasn't been performed sooner. Clark said Fields had a date scheduled in January but canceled because of a death in the family.
While the hospital is busy, Clark said, that hasn't affected patient care.
The St. Petersburg Times detailed three cases last year in which Haley patients died after either being misdiagnosed or deprived of vital equipment or supplies.
"I don't want to get into blaming," Clark said, speaking of Fields. "We don't blame people. ... Everything is going to be taken care of."
Fields, however, said that Clark is wrong and that the VA has never set a date. He said a nurse at Haley called him at 9 a.m. Wednesday — the day after the Times called Haley asking about his case — seeking to schedule the operation.
At this point, Fields said, he still plans to have the surgery outside the VA. He said he doesn't trust the VA to quickly schedule the operation.
"It's pretty frustrating that they're blaming me," he said. "The vet is always the wrong party, no matter what."
Fields isn't sure of the total cost of the surgery, scheduled at the Brandon Regional Medical Center, though much of it will be covered by Medicare. But he nonetheless faces steep co-pays, Fields said, and his long illness depleted his savings because it left him unable to work at his business selling pet birds.
His Medicare co-pay for a hospital room, for example, is $100 a day. Fields could be hospitalized a week or longer.
Ankylosing spondylitis, sometimes called bamboo spine, is an arthritic condition that leads to a rigidity of the spine.
In the worst cases, even a simple fall or minor car accident can lead to major neurological damage, including paralysis and death, said Dr. Michael Mac Millan, chief of the division of spinal surgery at the University of Florida.
"The lack of motion in the spine makes it predisposed to fractures," said Mac Millan, who is not Fields' doctor and has not reviewed his case. "Relatively trivial trauma can cause the spine to break."
Since August, Fields said he has mostly been confined to his South Tampa home, wearing a hard neck collar 24 hours a day, under doctor's orders to keep his movements to a minimum.
Fields said he rarely has the opportunity to see a physician at Haley. Though his case was referred to neurologists in August, Fields said, he has seen a doctor in that section just once — for less than 10 minutes in November.
Fields said the VA keeps him on a variety of pain medications sent to his home by mail without even a doctor's visit.
But Fields said he is reluctant to continue this. "I don't want to become a VA junkie," he said.
Fields said corrective surgery is high risk, particularly because he also suffers from reactive airway disease.
"But he just can't continue living as is," said Sandy Mathews, Fields' girlfriend, who shares his home. "The problem isn't going to get better. Waiting is not an option."
The couple formerly operated the bird business together. But it went out of business last year, and Fields said he barely pays his bills with $1,400 a month from Social Security and a VA pension.
"Financially, it's going to kill us," Fields said of his surgery. "But I have no choice."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306