Alex Vancel is an American veteran of the Iraq War. He volunteered after 9/11, and America called upon him to fight on our behalf in the inferno of Iraq. He is an Army Specialist who did one 15-month tour in 2006-2007 in East Baghdad. Since returning, he and his wife have scraped by. They could not afford health insurance, even under Obamacare, and they have been relying on the VA for healthcare. Vancel was working two jobs, one at Best Buy and one as a newspaper press operator, until he became too sick to work. His wife is pregnant with their first child.
Vancel once watched helplessly as his brothers in arms were burned alive in an IED explosion. But he is now fighting his fiercest battle, for his life, against cancer and, he alleges, shocking neglect by the VA, which nearly killed him.
In January, he began feeling intense pain in his tailbone area. He went to the VA outpatient clinic in West Lafette, Indiana.
This is his story:
I told the doctor that it had become too painful to sit, and that I had been taking an excessive amount of Naproxen for the pain. Maybe I have hemorrhoids, I told her. Based only on my suggestion, the doctor diagnosed me with hemorrhoids. I requested a physical examination of my rear area. I was flatly told “No,” because there was nothing they could do about hemorrhoids.
The doctor told me to take a fiber husk and start taking over-the-counter Acetaminophen, and ignored me when I explained Acetaminophen hadn’t worked for me. I felt like I was talking to a robot.
The pain became unbearable. For days, I called the VA clinic and no one answered. I left voicemails at several numbers. No one called me back.
Finally, a nurse called and asked for a pain level on a scale of 1 to 10 and I responded with 15. My lower body felt tied in knots. I was experiencing severe diarrhea.
The doctor called and told me to start taking Naproxen again. This made no sense because I went to the clinic to try to get off Naproxen and get to the root of the problem.
My pain and diarrhea grew extreme and constant. Desperate, I called the clinic again. Several days later, a nurse called back, and I pleaded with her for a solution.
They made an appointment a week later to check my blood for a parasite. Another week of excruciating pain followed, and the results said that my red blood cell count was low and I was anemic. They found no trace of a parasite.
I could barely get out of bed now, and had to take a leave of absence from both of my jobs. This made our financial situation perilous, and with our first baby on the way. I was losing weight rapidly and began to look like a walking skeleton. I was crying, screaming and moaning. Nothing the doctor instructed me to do helped and I continued to get worse. I stopped taking the fiber husk because I felt it was worsening my diarrhea.
By the time the clinic finally returned my calls following the parasite test, my colon felt like it was being constantly stabbed with a knife. They scheduled me to see a gastrointestinal specialist at the Danville VA hospital in Illinois. The appointment was an agonizing week away.
The specialist in Danville was the first doctor to genuinely care and try to get to the root of the problem. The doctor said I should stop taking Naproxen and start taking Tramadol but this required a prescription, which required a diagnosis. I was scheduled for a colonoscopy and an endoscopy a torturous three and a half weeks away.
Spasms began wracking my body. My breathing became shallow and labored. I had not slept in four days. My diarrhea was uncontrollable and constant. My wife had to put me in adult diapers, as I could no longer get to the bathroom. My wife was furious that no one would admit me to the hospital. She became worried that I had cancer, that I would die in my sleep. She says I smelled like my body was decaying.
My father went to the VA clinic and confronted the employees. The clinic called and set up an appointment the following day so that I could fill out the paperwork to get Tramadol to ease the pain.
My wife drove me, spasming frequently, covered in my own excrement, to the West Lafayette VA clinic the next day. The VA doctor did not give me the paperwork for Tramadol. While waiting, a nurse who saw me basically acknowledged my doctor was failing and advised me to go to the VA Urgent Care in Danville. A nurse weighed me. In three months, I had dropped from 180 to 150 pounds. Once again, the doctor refused to examine my rear. The doctor also said I should go to VA Urgent Care in Danville.
The nurses in Danville helped me get cleaned up, and gave me clean diapers. They were shocked after hearing about everything I had been through the past few months and that I had not had a single x-ray, CT scan, or even a physical examination. They said I seemed to have been wrongfully ignored by the VA clinic in West Lafayette.
The doctor in Danville gave me a CT scan, which did not reveal anything. I was given two antibiotics, the Tramadol, finally, and Vicodin. For the first time in months, I felt like someone was addressing my case.
My condition slowly improved. The spasms and diarrhea declined. I was able to lay in bed comfortably for the first time in weeks.
On April 21st, I went with my father and my wife to Danville and had the colonoscopy and endoscopy. The doctor found a suspicious lump, and did a biopsy for testing.
A nurse called and explained that the mass was malignant and I had colorectal cancer. I was in a state of shock. I am a 29-year-old Veteran, and I just learned I have a cancer that typically elderly people suffer from.
Another nurse called the same day and told me to go to Danville Urgent Care immediately for more blood work, even though I had just been there. My white blood cell count was dangerously high and I was at risk of getting sepsis. They told me I could not wait, I could die in my sleep from an infection. I was terrified and feeling overwhelmed.
The Danville clinic sent me by ambulance to VA Medical Center in Indianapolis for further tests. Two doctors came and discovered that my right buttock was firm and it felt as if there might be an abscess in it.
They did a CT scan, which confirmed the doctors’ suspicion. They put me into surgery to remove the infected abscess. After I awoke, they told me they had drained 40 ounces or more of puss.
This enormous, life-threatening infection, caused by my cancer, had been the source of so much pain. After the surgery, the pain began to subside. The doctors explained that I did not have hemorrhoids. During a 13-day stay recovering in the Danville VA hospital, the doctors diagnosed me with stage 4 colorectal cancer, an aggressive cancer due to my age.
I am undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the mass before any surgery can be performed. I have remained positive and I am determined to beat this cancer so that I will be able to play with my baby girl who is expected to be born in October.
Both the Danville and Indianapolis VA clinics treated me wonderfully and every healthcare professional genuinely wanted to help me get better. The West Lafayette VA nearly killed me. They did not give me an exam when my life depended on it. Had my original doctor physically examined me, they would have discovered that it wasn’t hemorrhoids that was causing me such incredible pain. I would have been able to start treatment months ago.
I have started a GoFundMe account to help my family during this time pay bills and buy groceries as SNAP benefits take a while to get approved. I have put in a disability claim through the VA but it could still be months before I know whether or not I am approved. This has been a very long, stressful year so far and I hope that by the end of it I will be cancer free and back to normal with a little help.
Please share this American Veteran’s story widely and consider contributing to Alex’s GoFundMe account. It is totally unacceptable that a young man who risked his life for his country should be treated with such disregard by Veterans Affairs healthcare.