Special Guest Perspective By Mark Fink
Every day, 20 veterans take their own life. I almost became one of them because the Tomah VA Hospital let me down. But I’m not a special case. The hospital failed so many of my fellow veterans.
I first walked through the doors of the Tomah VA as a caregiver, not a patient. I saw it as continuing my mission to take care of my buddies—something I’ve done for almost my whole life. I enlisted in the Navy in 1969 and was a corpsman in Vietnam. After I got out, I went to school, got my degree and then rejoined the service as an officer in the Navy nurse corps, eventually serving in Desert Storm.
The men and women I served with were phenomenal. They were dedicated to the mission and each other. It was an amazing team to be on and, like many vets, when I retired I missed the camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Working at Tomah was a way to recapture some of that and to say thank you to my fellow veterans—World War II’s Greatest Generation to the younger vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. But soon after I started the job, I began to see a lot of things that just weren’t right.
Patients were being prescribed massive amounts of medication, often strong opioids. I’d ask what the pills were for and they would tell me “chronic pain.” Then I’d inquire what we were doing besides the drugs to treat the pain. Nothing, was the answer, which was unfortunate because pain management is complicated. You can’t simply throw pills at the problem and expect it to be taken care of.
Some called the Tomah VA Hospital “Candyland.” Patients were on so many strong medications that they couldn’t function on a daily basis. They became addicts. Their families were torn apart. We had patients overdose and commit suicideon hospital grounds and the hospital did little to address it.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General conducted a lengthy investigation but nothing came of it. The report disappeared into Washington—Wisconsin’s lawmakers remained silent.
As a caregiver, it was heartbreaking and frustrating. The veterans deserved better.
Then, when I turned 60, I came to experience the gross mismanagement as a patient. The mental defenses that I had built up to cope with stress and my experiences suddenly came crashing down. I had depression, PTSD, and chronic anxiety disorder. I went from being a fully functional and competent nurse to not wanting to get out of bed.
Tomah treated me with more and more meds. In my PTSD therapy sessions, the counselor didn’t seem to know how to handle my illness. Often, he would pull out a book to see what he should do next—that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
When my wife attempted to advocate on my behalf, she was brushed aside and told to trust the doctors. Eventually, I was on seven different medications and a shell of who I had once been.
When I was a health provider, I had never understood suicide. I couldn’t fathom what would drive someone to that point, to take his own life. But I discovered it. One day, I’d had enough and took a handful of pills. My wife found me on the bathroom floor. I was airlifted to La Crosse and spent four days in a coma.
After that, I was done with the VA. I no longer trusted the system. My new doctor told me that in more than 40 years of practice he had never seen someone on seven antidepressants at one time. He got me down to three. Today, I’m in a much better place.
But far too many of my fellow veterans remain trapped in a system that continues to fail them. Congress needs to give them a chance for better care—the care they deserve.
When the VA system can’t offer the right care in a timely fashion, we need to let veterans use their benefits to access care outside of the system. It would be a strong step toward ensuring that what happened at the Tomah VA Hospital doesn’t happen again.
My new mission is to make sure that those who served our country are never forced to suffer through substandard care.
Mark Fink LCDR, NC, USN (Ret), is a 20-year Navy veteran.