My dad was Joseph J. Guidice. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 22, 1934. He was killed on May 11, 2013 at approximately 2:14 in the afternoon. To understand why I use the word killed instead of passed away, you first must know the journey he took to bring him to that point, on that day, at that time and the moment, that ended the life of one of the worlds most precious gifts.
For several years dad had been battling rheumatoid arthritis and a late on set of diabetes. He was not injection dependent, but did take oral medication for his his diabetes and a barrage of other drugs the VA doctors gave him for the arthritis. They were to include some of the most system breaking concoctions known to man. Drugs like methotrexate, prednisone and a variety of others too many to list. He took them for years. I tried to discuss alternative natural remedies and exercise but dad was guilty of something most men of his generation are...blind faith in their medical caregivers. I am not saying this is true for every vet, or by any means for every VA doctor, but it seems to me to be the most common.
A year or so ago, dad started having issues with diabetic foot ulcers due to poor circulation because of the diabetes. Up until those started, dad had been relatively strong and independent for his age. He did all the grocery shopping. Lugging them from the car up to the ground floor apartment he shared with my mom. He went to the club house and shot pool with his friends, sat and chatted over coffee and in the summer...went swimming in the complex pool. He was a pretty active guy for being in his seventies. But when the ulcers started occurring, his activities started taking a back seat. The sores would give him on many occasions pain and often break open and bleed. His skin had grown so thin from the diabetes, medications and other factors that he was beginning to become more and more prone to them. And each time it seemed as if they would come back more severe than the the last. Eventually it got to the point where two of them had tunneled almost completely through his foot. All the while he was seeing the doctors at the VA and having a home health nurse treat the wounds. We would ask him all the time if he was sure if he wanted to remain with them or switch to his Medicare insurance and see some new doctors...a second or even third opinion. But he had faith in the VA doctors. He would say they were swamped with patients but did their best to make sure he got the best care. But as we found out later...that was not the case.
Several months ago dad started having breathing issues. He would get winded, have shortness of breath and on occasion even dizziness. He went to the VA doctors and they tested his lungs, his heart and circulation. They checked his carotid artery and saw a little blockage, but not to worry they said; it was normal for his age. They gave him an ultra sound of his heart and a series of other tests and said his heart was fine. Their diagnosis..asthma. They ordered him inhalers to be shipped to him and sent him on his merry way. While days went by waiting for the inhalers, the nurse treating his wound and the Podiatrist over seeing it, began to be concerned that there was infection...really? What an epiphany. We had been discussing this with dad for about two weeks or three, begging him to see a different doctor; he finally agreed. I called his old Medicare doctor and was trying to get him in but the doctor was on vacation and dad would have to wait a couple of weeks. Shortly after, I received a call from my mom. My brother was at their apartment trying to get dad out of bed. He had a pain so severe in his leg, that he couldn't move. I left work immediately and when I got there, my brother and sister in-law managed to get him into his chair in the living room. After discussing the situation with my brother and the home health nurse who had arrived, we opted to call 911. Dad had a blood clot in the past, and we were worried that might be the case now. The ambulance arrived and took dad to Sunrise hospital...his choice and ours.
After a day or two of a battery of tests, the doctors gave us the breath stopping news. The infection that dad had gotten from the sores had traveled in his body and to his heart. They were astounded to hear that the VA doctors hadn't detected the heart issue given the fact that they had performed the very same tests on his heart that Sunrise hospital had done. The doctor told us this had been going on for awhile, and if treated properly in the beginning it would have prevented the heart from being affected. We were sick, angry, scared and helpless. Dad would eventually go under open heart surgery to replace two valves and a single bi-pass. He then would endure a second procedure...a permanent pace maker. He lay in a hospital bed for six weeks, sometimes hallucinating from being in ICU for so long. We were told this was normal...nothing about what dad or my family was going through was normal. But all the long we thought he would overcome and go home. But that was not to be.
On May 9, 2013 I received a call from my brother that a new doctor had come in and wanted to speak to the family together. My brother and I stood at our father's bed side while he told us that dad wasn't getting better. The medicine and dialysis was what was keeping him alive but his organs were failing. I can't give you any words that could describe what I felt...so I won't try. My dad looked at me and my brother and for the first time in my life I saw him cry. He wasn't afraid to die, he had told this to us many times over. He had a strong belief in our Catholic religion and so death for him was a passage to something greater. No that's not why I saw tears in my dads eyes, it was because he said..."He loved us all so very much and he didn't want to leave us. He didn't not want to not see us." I moved closer to him and he said in his very dad tone..."My baby." At fifty one, I still felt like a little girl in my father's eyes. How could I let this man go? My rock, my confident, my strength, my confirmation that in his eyes I was and always would be so special. But it wasn't my decision to make, the decision had been made for us.
Dad wanted to come home and my brother and me were determined that he would. We discussed and made the arrangements with the doctors for hospice at home. The doctor couldn't give us too much time because once they stopped the heavy duty meds, things would start to fail more quickly. Everyone at Sunrise and at the hospice worked together to get dad home and on Friday May 10, 2013 he came home. Mom had them set up the hospital bed in the living and dad had a day filled with all his family and close friends. He got to see his great grand daughter, Olive, whom he had missed terribly the past six weeks he was in the hospital. He got to sing happy birthday to his grand daughter, Stevie, and ate lemon Italian ice, his favorite, that his niece Sarah brought to him. Mom got to sit next to him and watch their show on television, NCIS and talk to him about having to eat so he could get better...we're Italian, food heals all. He was surrounded with love like no other and the kind of love that every person alive should be fortunate enough to experience. But we were merely a reflection of him. Of the life he lived, the choices he made and the love he gave to all of us. By night fall he had begun to experience pain. With each half hour it seemed to grow, until the meds the doctor had ordered earlier arrived. We gave him his first dose and it seemed to make him more comfortable but a few hours later the pain came back again and at one point when I was stroking dad's forehead he told me he had wanted to die. Before long it was time to give him his second dose and instead of the first lesser dose, we read the instructions and gave him the second medium strength hoping it would last longer and he would sleep through the night.
I stayed with mom that night and periodically would get up and go check on dad. The medicine seemed to work because he slept through the night. I got up around seven and poured a cup of coffee. Mom was sleeping on the couch beside dad and they both looked so peaceful. I was happy that he was able to get through the night with no pain. A few minutes later mom woke up and remarked that we must of worn dad out from the day before. I just smiled and nodded. As we sat and had coffee, it became eight, then nine and then ten in the morning. At this point it was clear...dad wasn't waking up. The family came and spent the day staying by his side and telling him how much he was loved and that we understood it was time for him to go and it was okay. We promised to take care of each other and mom and that he didn't have to worry...we would carry through for him. Then a little after two, we said our final good byes to the most loving, good man that I have ever known. But we were very fortunate as a family. We got to say everything we wanted to and dad got to tell us how much he loved all of us...something he managed to tell us the whole day on Friday. We had no unfinished business, no words unspoken. We had one day...one full day to spend with our father, husband, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, brother and friend and we and he lived it...every minute.
I mourn the loss of my dad everyday. I cry and laugh when I think of a lifetime of memories and yet they don't seem to be enough. I can't help but feel anger for those doctors at the VA who saw those test results and did nothing. Wait let me correct myself...they did do something. They patched him together long enough for him to spend six weeks in the hospital and one day at home. I know as time passes, so will my anger. But the paralyzing feeling that we can't do anything for the next vet or their family makes me sick inside. My dad believed that because he served his country, went to war and defended our freedom that those doctors would do the same for him...they didn't and they don't. How many other men and woman get pushed through and patched up? How many other families heartache can be prevented? Why is the level of care you receive judged by the wad of money in your pocket? Shouldn't those who risk everything have as much preference as those who risk a bad day at the office? I have the questions...but not the answers.
My dad is gone and I will never be able to hug him or kiss him on the cheek hello again. I do believe I will see him again one day, but not like this...not like this life. I will live the rest of my life with a remembrance of how his voice sounded when he called me angel or baby, how his arms felt hugging me when I went to visit or how his face smelled because he had just finished shaving. My mom will go through life without her best friend by her side to watch NCIS, eat frozen pizza and massage her aching legs and my brother...my brother lost his buddy, his ear to listen too and his jokes to laugh with. And the VA medical care goes on...day to day in a never ending loop of fantasy. Because isn't that what it's called, when someone pretends?
I love you daddy...forever and always.