Samuel Jay Keyser
July 7, 2014 was my 79th birthday. I spent the morning in an ambulance. As ominous as that might sound, it was a blessing. I was being transferred from a not-for-profit private rehabilitation hospital to the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in West Roxbury, Massachusetts where, over the course of the next year and a half, as an inpatient and outpatient, I would receive the best possible care a spinal cord injured person could hope for.
Two months, two weeks and two days earlier I had suffered a fall. In a nanosecond, I was transported from the bipedal world into the world of tetraplegia. My arms and legs were paralyzed. I had no control over my bowels. I was, for all intents and purposes, an infant.
What caused that transformation couldn’t have been more ordinary. I was stretching my left leg on a staircase. I had done it countless times before. Suddenly my right leg collapsed. I fell flat on my back. A masterful neurosurgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and his team performed a laminectomy. It was needed to relieve pressure on my spine. He told me I had “the crappiest spinal column” he had ever seen. It was half the diameter of a normal one. The forest of bone spurs that sprouted along it bruised the nerves between the 3rd and 6th cervical. A doctor at MGH told me I would never walk again.
Why was I in an ambulance on my birthday speeding toward a VA hospital? After a month at MGH, I had been transferred to a private rehabilitation hospital. It was one of the best in the country. Unfortunately, they had to discharge me because of the “length of stay” problem. My Medicare insurance was running out. The hospital planned to send me to an assisted living complex with little or no rehabilitation capability. Why? I couldn’t afford to pay $3,170.75 a day to stay.
The next facility would house me for three weeks. Then my United States healthcare insurance would again run out. After that, I was on my own. It did not matter that, as time would tell, with the proper rehabilitative care, my body would be able to defy the pronouncement of the doctor who said I would never walk again. I would be able to walk a mile a day with the help of a walker. I would regain control of my bodily functions. My wife would not be the widow of a husband who wasn’t dead.
Before my accident I had an active life as a jazz trombone player. I played Dixieland music with the New Liberty Jazz Band. We played on a firetruck and did 4th of July parades. I played in the Aardvark Jazz Ensemble, the oldest continuous jazz ensemble in the United States. When the VA therapists were finished with me, I was able to have to a musical life again.
Obviously, I am an incredibly lucky guy. At the last minute a caseworker at the private-sector rehab hospital realized that I had served in the US Air Force. It occurred to her—as it had not to me—that, because my injury was catastrophic, I might be eligible for admission to a health care system that would provide me with free medical care for the rest of my life.
When the ambulance drivers rolled my gurney inside the West Roxbury VA, it was close to noon on my birthday. The first person I spoke to was the admissions clerk. I sensed immediately that something was very different. It took me a month to get it. One day I wheeled myself into an elevator. Hospital workers I didn’t know were already there. As I was about to exit at my floor, they said, “Thank you for your service.” Shortly after that, Eddie, a painter in the hospital, invited me to listen to the jazz he was playing while he worked in the corridor outside the gym. A week later a CD player and a stack of jazz CDs showed up in my room next to my bed. Eddie had put them there.
That I am able to walk now and to live a relatively normal life is evidence that the staff at the West Roxbury VA are superb at what they do, from my primary care provider, to the nurses in my ward, to the extraordinary physical and occupational therapists who showed me how to use my body again. But on top of this expertise they bring something else. Helping me was their way of thanking the thousands of veterans who had sacrificed so much on behalf of our country. The VA hospital people have a unique perspective. They see what they do as a way of giving back. No wonder they are so good at it.