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A widow's tale: How the VA helped my husband...and me

Maureen Gerwig, of Woodland Hills, holds a photo of her late husband, Vietnam veteran Michael Gerwig.
Maureen Gerwig, of Woodland Hills, holds a photo of her late husband, Vietnam veteran Michael Gerwig.

Amid the scandal about wait times at Veterans Administration medical facilities around the country (and growing concerns about patient care), we've been hearing from local vets about their experiences with the VA. There's been a mix of stories; some positive, some negative. Today we have the story of Michael Gerwig of Woodland Hills, as told by his widow, Maureen. 

Michael and Maureen met at the Perris Valley Sky Diving Center in the summer of 1980, and were married in January of 1982. He had served in the Army, doing a tour in Vietnam in 1969. Afterwards, he worked as a machinist; she worked for Los Angeles County.

Deteriorating health

In recent years, Michael's health started deteriorating.

He filed a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder claim with the VA in 2009. That year, he started going to the VA for health care.

Maureen said she was wary of navigating the system’s bureaucracy, but was pleasantly surprised by what she found.

"The difference between the VA and Kaiser – which was his only other experience, and what I saw – was the doctors were much more accessible," she said.

"It was more friendly; it seemed more inclusive. He was around other veterans, so he could relate to the other patients. It was just more of an inclusive environment."

Michael had a heart attack in March of 2010, and filed a claim for ischemic heart disease.

Later that year, the Obama administration said veterans who developed ischemic heart disease and were exposed to Agent Orange were eligible to receive VA health care and disability compensation. In June 2011, Michael was rated 100 percent disabled due to Agent Orange exposure-related ischemic heart disease, Maureen said.

He also had Hepatitis C, and was battling end-stage liver disease and cancer.

Yoga Warriors

As Michael became sicker, he became unbalanced and confused. One day, while he was at an appointment at the VA Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, Maureen picked up a flier for a class called Yoga Warriors, which was tailored toward veterans and others suffering from trauma. She enrolled him in it, and in an art therapy class.

The classes, she said, were transformative.

"You could tell the effects almost immediately," she said. "He became more confident, physically and mentally. He became more calm, and to me, it seemed to do more than the anger management classes he'd been taking."

https://soundcloud.com/kpcc/maureen-gerwig-talks-about-warrior-yoga

But things started going downhill quickly: Michael learned he would not be receiving a liver transplant, because of fears that his cancer would spread to the new liver. He started taking chemotherapy pills, but was soon told to stop, because he'd developed severe jaundice.

Hospice

In late May, he was transferred to the hospice unit at the Sepulveda VA. Maureen visited him daily.

"I love you," she said on Sunday, June 1. "I love you, too," he said. He didn't slur his words, as he often did, but he was going in and out of consciousness, she said.

https://soundcloud.com/kpcc/maureen-gerwig-talks-about-how-the-va-treated-michael-when-he-died

The next morning, Maureen got a phone call from a social worker at the hospice unit: Michael had passed away in the company of a doctor and VA staff. The cause of death was liver cancer, related to Hepatitis C.

Maureen went to the hospice unit, and was told she could spend as much time with him, by herself, as she needed.

"When I went into the room, I was just shocked at what I saw; it just took my breath away," she said. "They had him lying in state, and his body was covered with a crisp white sheet, and over that was draped an American flag. And the window to the room was open, so the light was shining down on him."

When Maureen was done visiting with his body, officials told her they'd conduct a ceremony – something she'd never heard of. She wondered: Was it a moment of silence?

They filed into the bedroom. One veteran stood at attention at the side of Michael's bed; another veteran stood at attention at the foot of his bed, she said. Then they played taps.

"When taps was through being played, the veterans, they slipped the American flag off his body and folded it, and the veteran who had been standing at the foot of his bed, turned to me, and presented me with the flag, and saluted me, and tears were streaming down my face," she said. "It was such an emotional experience.”

"When I mention it to other people," she said, "nobody knew that the VA did that."

Michael Gerwig died on June 2. He was 66.

Have you had an unexpected experience with the VA - good or bad? Tell us about it in the comments section below, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org. Your story could inform future reporting.

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