Veteran faces battle of a lifetimeFrom: "Bruce K. Melson" <email@example.com>
|August 12, 2000
Veteran faces battle of a lifetime
By JAIME LYN REA
Dan Walden's red baseball cap says he's a bone marrow transplant survivor, but he's also a warrior.
A battle rages within his body. It's a battle that will not be won save a miracle, but nevertheless will be fought.
Walden, a 55-year-old Eugene resident, suffers from a terminal bone cancer called myelofibrosis. He believes he contracted the disease from exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War.
While Walden waits for financial assistance, a bone marrow transplant is prolonging his life. He can no longer do the things most people take for granted - such as work, tend his yard or go camping - because his body is weak and his immune system is nonexistent. A simple infection, a virus or even contact with fungus from soil could be fatal.
"The most difficult part is to watch your loved one not be able to do the things they want to do, and not be a partner in the relationship," Kathy says.
Walden was 18 and still "a kid" with a lot to learn when he joined the Air Force in 1963. He says he has no regrets about enlisting and that his four years in the military helped him mature.
Walden was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay from late 1965 to early 1967 as a mechanic and said he never entered combat or directly handled Agent Orange, which was stored on his base. In fact, he said he didn't learn until after the war about the herbicide that was sprayed by U.S. troops to defoliate junglelike terrain that concealed the enemy.
"They kept us in the dark," he says. "I thought I came out without a scratch."
But Walden does remember flying over destroyed regions of South Vietnam, and although he never witnessed the herbicide being used, he sensed that something might be wrong. After the war, he told his first wife that she should investigate his death if he died at an early age.
The illness didn't surface until last summer. Walden thought he sprained an ankle in July, was forced to use a cane, and then fell flat on his face one night in August.
"I had no legs," Walden says. "I couldn't walk."
An MRI showed a gray mass surrounding the bones in his legs and he was immediately treated for cancer. Kathy, searching the Internet for a possible cause, concluded that exposure to Agent Orange was a probability.
Medical researchers have linked Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the war to skin and nerve disorders and numerous cancers. Diseases listed by the VA for disability compensation include lung, larynx, trachea and bronchus cancers; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer; and various skin and nerve disorders.
The Waldens were told that only 1 in 50,000 people who have cancer have myelofibrosis. When they filed their claim for compensation, the VA only had three documented cases of the disease - all three were men stationed on Walden's base at the same time during the war.
Walden's type of cancer, however, is not on the VA's list for disability compensation.
Walden, who had to quit his job as a construction worker, continued to deteriorate as the fall months of 1999 progressed, and he spent many days at Sacred Heart Medical Center getting blood transfusions.
"I had so many needle marks I felt like a drug user," Walden says. "I knew in my heart and in my head that I wasn't going to make it to the end of the year."
Doctors decided that Walden needed a bone marrow transplant, and Walden's sister traveled from Illinois to be a donor. The operation, postponed after Walden contracted pneumonia, finally took place at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland five days before Christmas with friends throughout the country holding candlelight vigils.
"I had people from one end of this country to the other praying for me," Walden says. "I didn't realize I had so many friends."
Walden had to live within 30 minutes of OHSU for the next six months. The couple, who have three grown children between them, rented a home and furniture, and hired a full-time caregiver to stay with Dan as he regained his strength. Kathy spent her weekends in Portland and her weekdays in Eugene, where she works for an insurance company.
Walden has had a few relapses since his return to Eugene in May - his body is rejecting the bone marrow transplant and he's struggled with an upper-respiratory infection. But Walden says his faith sustains him each day.
"I've got enough faith to carry me through," he says. "There's a better place to go to."
Neighbor Barbara Braun says the couple's faith has kept Dan and Kathy upbeat in the midst of sickness, financial burdens and emotional struggles.
"You pray a lot, and you believe in the Lord and put everything in His hands," Braun says.
Friends, family, co-workers and even strangers have assisted the family throughout the past year, but because the VA has not yet approved compensation, the bills continue to stack up.
"We've come to the point now where we can't juggle anymore," Kathy says. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but we need a boost in the meantime."
Smith's office began working on Walden's case in July after receiving a letter from Kathy. The office in turn sent a letter to the VA to request the status of the case, said Rebecca Wilder, deputy press secretary for Smith.
"The case won't be dropped on our end," Wilder said.
DeFazio's office is working on the case as well, but declined to comment citing confidentiality rules.
The Portland office of Disabled American Veterans, working with the VA, is evaluating the case. After researching myelofibrosis and verifying paperwork, the VA will decide whether to compensate Walden, said Daryl Testone, national service officer for DAV.
New claims usually take six to 18 months to complete, and the veteran must prove "without a benefit of a doubt" that the cancer is on the list of those contracted from Agent Orange exposure or is connected to one on the list. If the cancer is not listed, veterans may petition Congress for their disease to be added to the list.
"It's like this big ball of red tape and trying to find the right kind of scissors to cut through it," Kathy says.
Before his transplant, doctors gave Walden a year to live. Now, each day brings the possibility of life or death, although doctors say he could live from one to three years. "I may surprise everybody," Walden says. "If the good Lord is willing, I could live a pretty productive life in the future."
DAN WALDEN BENEFIT
What: Spaghetti dinner fund-raiser for Dan Walden
When: Sunday from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where: Westmoreland Community Center, 1545 W. 22nd, Eugene
Cost: $3.50 for spaghetti, French bread and salad, $1.50 for pie
To donate: A fund has been set up in Dan Walden's name at Wood Products Credit Union in Springfield. Donations will also be accepted at the spaghetti feed.