A Juneau veteran who spent the last 15 years of his life fighting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over what he claimed was a life-altering misdiagnosis died last week in a Seattle hospital.
George Messerschmidt, 59, who served on active duty from 1981 to 1985 as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, claimed the VA had been treating him for the wrong disease for 15 years before they caught their mistake.
In 1984, while he was stationed in northern Greece, doctors surgically removed 94 percent of Messerschmidt’s thyroid gland, an organ that produces hormones and regulates metabolism, when it was found to be overrun with calcium deposits and blood clots, he said in a June 5 interview at his home.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, (the VA) listed me as being hyperthyroid and I stayed that way until 1999,” Messerschmidt said.
Hyperthyroidism, also known as over-active thyroid, is a disorder that causes weight loss, weakness and a fast heartbeat, among other symptoms. Hypothyroidism has the opposite cause and, largely, the opposite symptoms. It can cause massive weight gain. Messerschmidt, who was left with almost no thyroid gland after his 1984 procedure, should have been diagnosed as having low thyroid function, he said.
“I told you the difference between the two and I have a question for you — do I look thin?”
On June 5, Messerschmidt sat in his Mendenhall Valley home surrounded at arm’s length by the things he needed to make it through the day — medication, light snacks, drinking water and containers to hold his urine.
Weighing about 450 pounds and suffering from a litany of health problems that kept him mostly immobile, Messerschmidt could no longer take care of himself on his own and relied on the help of his wife, who also has a fulltime job, and a nurse, he said. Messerschmidt’s weight climbed steadily while he was being treated for hyperthyroidism.
“They never had me on proper thyroid replacement meds,” he said.
But even with his health failing him, Messerschmidt hadn’t given up his fight.
In June, he was a year into waiting to hear back on a fifth appeal he had leveled against a 2005 VA decision that he should not receive disability backpay — totalling as much as $599,000, he said — for the 15 years he claimed he had been treated for the wrong disease. He had been receiving federal veterans’ disability pay since 2004.
He said he had reached out to the Alaska Congressional delegation for help on his most recent appeal.
“I’m getting nowhere fighting (the VA),” Messerschmidt said. “I’ve been in a 15-year fight over the back money, and with the latest medical problems... the condition of my legs have gotten to the point where there is no surface feeling on the legs below the knee. ... I could be walking down the street and cut the skin and not know it, and the fluid would start seeping through the skin.”
Messerchmidt had also been diagnosed with lymphedema, which caused his legs to swell with fluid. He said he believed the condition was related to his hypothyroidism. He had been rushed to the emergency room multiple times because the fluid in his legs had gotten infected and he began to lose consciousness. His doctor estimated he was carrying between 80 and 140 pounds of fluid in his legs, he said.
“Basically it boils down to it’s not something I can control anymore,” he said. “My request has been to be put into a community living center in the VA system or some type of long-term care so I can be monitored with my legs. ... I really don’t want to do it but it’s gone beyond having a choice.”
He said there are no facilities in Juneau that could have provided all the care he needed to treat the lymphedema, an incurable condition. Messerchmidt was a patient of the Juneau VA Outreach Clinic.
“When I came back from (Oregon) two years ago — I was down there for five and a half months for rehab on my legs — the first thing out of (my VA doctor’s) mouth was, ‘George, you do know you made a mistake coming back (to Juneau),’” he said. “They weren’t able to take care of me.”
Spokespeople for the VA in Alaska said they were unable to discuss the details of Messerschmidt’s claim or medical care because of federal medical privacy laws. Board of Veterans’ Appeals decisions are available online, but veterans’ names and other identifying information are stripped from them.
However, a September 2011 board decision that includes dates and details that match Messerschmidt’s case referred to a 1985 VA doctor assigning “the wrong Diagnostic Code” — one indicating the patient had hyperthyroidism, not hypothyroidism — but that “it is not clear and unmistakable that this error was anything but typographical.”
The decision document claims that “the evidence at the time of the 1985 (disability) decision clearly established that the Veteran had hypothyroidism.”
The 2011 appeal was denied.
“They make reference, which they’ve done in the four previous claims that went before the Board of Appeals, they make reference to that being a typo, it’s not their fault, and on and on and on,” Messerschmidt said. “If that’s not a clear and unmistakable error, I don’t know what is. ...
“If this was my mistake, I would admit it, and continue the march. This is not my mistake, and it’s not a typo. Somebody screwed up.”
In the June 5 interview, Messerschmidt said he would soon be traveling to Seattle for a biopsy of what he hoped was a benign mass on his colon. He died there July 16. But his appeal of the VA’s decision doesn’t have to die with him. Family members of veterans who die during a VA appeal process can continue the case if they sign on as substitutes, a staff member with the Board of Veteran’s Appeals in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday.
Messerschmidt is one of thousands of veterans who go up against the VA every year on its decisions. In fiscal year 2013, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals issued 41,910 decisions on 42,000 veterans’ and beneficiaries’ claims, according to the most recent board annual report posted on the VA website. The board received 52,860 appeals that year.
The nationwide VA hospital system was thrust into the public eye last year when it was discovered that employees were covering up months-long wait times for veterans to receive health care.
The scandal caused then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, a five-year member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, to resign soon afterward.
Messerschmidt said in the June 5 interview that he thought his experience with the VA was indicative of a greater problem in the U.S.
“They treat their vets like sh-t,” he said. “And, yes, I am bitter.”
Before his death, Messerschmidt passed his time creating needlepoint embroidery of military crests for friends who were still in the service. His mother had taught him the hobby while she was alive. Despite what he’s been through, he said, he doesn’t regret serving his country.
“I would still do it again,” he said, looking away. He took a long pause to wipe away tears that rolled down his cheeks. “I didn’t do it for individual accolades. (I did it for) love of country.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.