The very definition of unexpected is something we don’t anticipate. An event that comes out of nowhere – uncontrollable – a bit of a blindside.

It can be anything. You’re in a really bad car accident. You find out your spouse is cheating on you. Or, you suddenly find yourself in a medical emergency and you’re surreally dialing 911.

A few weeks ago, the last example happened to me.

Heart Attack

Those two dreaded words. No one expects it, right? Everyone fears the very idea of it and tries to push it out of their mind. I know I did.

In our schizophrenic society, we bounce between the rabidly skinny (healthy?) and the morbidly obese. Between diet craze and pizza all-you-can-eats, it’s no wonder that America has an obesity epidemic. It’s no surprise why children in the United States are heavier than ever before in history and are being diagnosed with health problems at an earlier and earlier age.

But, still, you never really expect it to happen to you.

Not really.

I was diagnosed with diabetes about 10 years ago. In my early 30’s. It was a mixed bag of bad genes (it apparently runs rampant in my family, along with heart disease) and poor diet.

I was told I need to get on some drugs, but I was determined to beat this my own way. I was 300 lbs, entrenched in a miserable marriage, and rarely exercised.

So, I made some changes. Lost about 50 lbs, started hiking, biking, walking regularly. I got out of my marriage and reclaimed my life.

It worked, too. For awhile.

I was able to control my BS without medications and dove head long into a new goals and new projects.

The Ordeal

Fast forward 10 years. It was a chilly afternoon on the lake, blue sky, the sun warm on my skin. I had just spent the bulk of the day pulling boards from the dock I wanted to dismantle and hauling the lumber up to the treeline on my Eden Property and finished off a deck that would serve as the foundation for a tarp shelter I hoped to move to – live out the remainder of my days in solitude, in seclusion, among nature.

I drove the last nail in, satisfied with my progress, and quickly put everything back in order, storing tools, closing up the shed, etc.

I packed up the meager supplies I had brought along and took them with me down the ramp to the dock, where my kayak was waiting for me. I loaded up, and within a few minutes, I was in the water and already sorting and devising my plans for my next trip over.

Thirty minutes into my paddle (it usually takes an hour and a half to paddle back to my car), after finally getting a coughing fit under control, I felt a familiar pain wash over my body.

It’s hard to explain what it felt like. But, I had experienced it several times in the past – for years, in fact. I had always contributed it to dehydration, which made sense, as winter time always leaves me drinking less than I should.

But, a minute so after, this familiar feeling was replaced by an unfamiliar one. A pain in my chest, center mass, radiating outward, as if I were somehow burning alive from the inside.

I lay back in my seat, paddle in my lap, just trying to catch my breath, get my bearings.

Heart attack, of course, crossed my mind.

But, I didn’t believe it. It had to be a bad case of heart burn or just a quirk. There was no way I was having a heart attack.

No way.


Yet, the pain did not go away. In fact, it only got worse.

I finally found the strength to start paddling again, working slowly, gently, trying not to over do it, hoping whatever this was would go away just as enigmatically as it had come.

By the time I got to my car, I could no longer deny what was happening. As I sat in the driver’s seat, I did the math. There was no way I could get my kayak out of the water, let alone put it on top of my car and strap it in – and, the pain was not subsiding.

I needed help.

But, I was too far from the VA Hospital. Over 100 miles. That meant the ambulance would take me to a civilian facility and that spelled trouble. It always did.

I’ve heard the horror stories. I’m sure you have, too.

But, I had to commit to this, whatever it was. I had no idea why it was happening, what was happening, but, it WAS happening, and there were only two choices. Sit there and hope it went away (and possibly die), or make the call.

I dialed 911 three times before I finally pressed the SEND button. First responders were there in a matter of minutes. They took great care of me. Even fished my kayak out of the water and stored it at the local fire station.

I was then whisked off to the local hospital, evaluated in the ER, where the tests were borderline.

I was then rushed into an operating room (or the Cath Lab) and twenty minutes later, could see on a large screen, the Cardiologist working to clear a blockage in my left coronary artery. It was a complete blockage that required an extra long stent to be placed in a section of artery that was misshaped, like a horseshoe.

I felt immediately better once the blockage was gone, and I was then wheeled to the ICU, where I remained for 3 days, and then moved to a regular room on the fourth.

All in all, the care was excellent, or as good as could be expected in a small town hospital.

But, despite all of my insistence with the medical staff, I was assured again and again, the VA would pay for my procedure and my stay.

No One Knows the Rules

On the last day – a Saturday – the hospital staff began contacting the VA on my behalf. First, they rejected a number of my medications. Then they couldn’t find me in their system. Then they stopped answering their phones altogether.

To be honest, I was surprised they could be reached at all. Every time I’ve ever tried calling the VA, I have to leave a message and hope they will call me back – which they often don’t do.

By 3pm, I was released from the hospital and took the twenty minute cab ride back to my car, then drove another fifteen minutes home.

When Monday rolled around, I got the call from the hospital. Even though the VA had paid for the first ten days of medications, they had denied the hospital stay.

All of it.

I found out later, there are a host of rules and fine print that are set up specifically so the VA has a reason to deny community medical care. If the procedures are not followed exactly, if all the stipulations are not met, you will be denied payment.

They, of course, never advertise these sorted rules and regulations. In fact, when I went into the VA last year to finally get my ID card, I was assured then that I was fully covered, and all I needed was a doctor (the one thing I can never get or keep at the VA).

A Heart Attack can change your life in an instant.

And, so here I now sit in my living room, trying to recover from this unexpected event, knowing full well that I will have to fight and claw and drag the VA to cover my hospital stay – and, in all likelihood, they will not and I’ll be on the hook for over $60,000.

Silver Lining

Needless to say, I’ve been spending most of my recuperation time researching online. And, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one.

The VA, apparently, has a habit of weaseling out of community claims, even though they tell you again and again, if you have an emergency, call 911.

It would be tempting to conclude it would have been better to just die. But, all things considered, I’m still doing okay. Actually, I’m doing pretty great.

I’m alive.

I can still breathe and enjoy the things I love (well, except for most foods). This has been a whirlwind, and there are some significant changes to my lifestyle on the horizon – mostly financial in nature.

My takeaway – all it takes is one medical emergency to alter everything.

Looking back, I know now I should have called the VA BEFORE I called 911.

Last year, I should have fought harder to get a doctor assigned and had a checkup – but, I took the eligibility people at their word that I was covered, so what can you do? You never know what you don’t know, and they depend on that, in hopes that you’ll slip up and they can skate on the bill at the last minute when you really need them.

I would recommend that any Veteran reading this, take a hard look at your situation now, before you draw the short straw and have to be taken by ambulance to a community hospital.

How far away are you from the nearest VA emergency room? Have you seen your doctor in the last 2 years? Have you looked into all the rules and regulations, stipulations, opt outs, and minutia the VA has put in place so they can weasel out of paying your medical bills?

Check it out and put together a plan ahead of time. I found out the hard way – once you’re in the ambulance, it’s already too late.

Things still look pretty good for me, considering. As I mentioned before, I’m alive. That’s saying a lot. Talking with a relative, they alone know three people in their mid 40’s that have died in the last several years from heart attacks.

Going forward, I have to recover, get stronger. I had plenty of sick leave saved up, so I’m not hurting financially. Those at my job have been very supportive and have assured me my position is waiting for me when I’m ready to come back.

In the long run, though, I will have to wait and see. As long as I can keep my job, half the battle is won. I need to submit paperwork to the hospital for bill reduction. I also need to appeal the denial at the VA, though I’m sure that will be futile.

Once the bills are in, and if the VA will not step up and honor their promises, I will be consulting with an attorney on my options. As I see it, bankruptcy will take the Eden Property, but will also wipe out over $60k in medical debt. I should be able to keep my house, or will at least get the large homestead extension, so I would walk away relatively unscathed (and 100% of my home equity in my pocket).

Keeping the house would be a big benefit. Prices have really gone up since I bought this place back when the market was at the bottom.

But, even if I can’t, I’ve already worked out a plan, with new adventures on the horizon. So, it’s a win-win for me either way.

It’s sad, though, to think about the work I put in on Eden, only to lose it to medical bills the VA assured me they would pay if I ever needed them to.

But, my mantra remains the same.

It could be a lot worse. Instead of sitting comfortably in my recliner, warm, fed, laptop in my lap as I type out these words……

Instead of all the options I have ahead of me, all the possibilities, all the foreseeable futures…..

Rather than paddling across the lake and calling 911 that day, I could have slumped over in my kayak when the heart attack hit, breathed my last breath, and simply died.

In my book, I think I’m doing okay.

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Article, Blog, Heart Attack