Vietnam vet with cancer angry at VA treatment

KINGMAN ­ Arthur Callis helped take care of his country during military service in the Marine Corps and now feels it's time his country takes care of him.

In January 2005, Callis noticed yellowing of his eyes and skin. He thought it might be hepatitis or jaundice and had blood tests done.

When that indicated a possible problem, he went to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Prescott for further testing in late January. A CT scan, ultrasound and X-rays were done.

"I was diagnosed with cancer, but doctors there could not pinpoint it," Callis said. "They sent me to the VA Hospital in Phoenix, where I stayed for five days in early February.

"They did an endoscopy and biopsy and confirmed it was pancreatic cancer, not benign but full blown."

Callis believes his cancer is the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam during 1967-68.

The VA scheduled him for surgery in Phoenix on Feb. 25. He went there the preceding day to have his blood typed and cross-matched and encountered trouble.

"The chief resident told me nothing beforehand about what to do prior to going down there," Callis said. "When he found out I had taken my normal medications and eaten that morning everything was postponed."

Callis said he contacted the chief resident, whose name he could not recall, the following day to re-schedule the surgery. The chief resident allegedly said he was leaving in two days and Callis would have to deal with his replacement. "I said you messed up, so get out your surgery book and let's do something," Callis said. "The next opening was March 9.

"I went down there and Dr. Virginia Stewart, who is no longer there, did the surgery. She opened me up, said she could do nothing, closed me up and sent me home."

Callis underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Kingman from March through May. He continues chemotherapy once a week now, and his condition is stabilized, but the cancer remains active.

He said the surgery left an open wound that was infected for several months and he could get no help from the VA.

"I called the outpatient clinic here in Kingman, and a volunteer there made an appointment for me (about two months ago)," he said. "When I went in (supervisor) Linda Holbrook said I was not coming in and bumping another person."

Callis got on his cell phone and called Amy Callahan, special assistant to the director of the VA Hospital in Prescott. She had been the only person helpful to him in his quest for proper medical care, he said.

"Holbrook said I'm going to have you arrested if you keep calling the director's office," Callis said. "All the time I was talking to Amy on the cell phone, she was acting up."

Callis eventually went to Prescott, where Callahan arranged for him to see a doctor about the staph infection. Treatment took five minutes and the infection cleared up completely in two weeks, he said.

Two messages left for Holbrook by the Miner for comment were not returned.

Callis said his wife searched the Internet and learned about M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic at the University of Texas. What they found out together gave him hope.

He wants to go there for what could be life-saving surgery, but the VA refuses to sanction or pay for it, Callis said.

"I got a call from Pete Privitt (assistant to the chief of staff with the VA Hospital in Prescott)," he said. "He made it clear I will go to a Veterans Hospital or get no help, and after what happened in Phoenix I'm scared to death.

"We're talking about cutting a vital vein in the surgery and if they mess up I die within a week because the cancer gets into my blood where it isn't now. These people don't have the experience, whereas the Anderson people have 30 years experience with this type of cancer and are five years ahead of the VA in technology."

Frank Cimorelli, public affairs officer with the VA Hospital in Prescott, said the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (HIPPA) prevents him from discussing specifics surrounding Callis' case.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs is comprised of 22 veterans integrated service networks," Cimorelli said. "Within each network are VA medical centers assigned to that network. Each network is its own integrated health care delivery model.

"We have cutting-edge stuff as related to research. But it would be impractical for every VA medical center to try to be a center of excellence in every single area of application."

"We commonly refer patients to our center in Albuquerque (New Mexico) for diagnostic or radiology work and to Tucson for heart-related problems. We've established centers of excellence throughout the country and make use of them through inter-facility transfers."

The VA has whatever Callis needs to treat his cancer, so there is no reason for him to go to other facilities, Cimorelli said.

But Callis' experience with people he feels are insensitive or rude has left him with little faith in VA medical care.

Cimorelli said he can't believe VA personnel were rude or insensitive to Callis.

"We are always kind, courteous and respectful to our nation's veterans," Cimorelli said. "We are cognizant of the sacrifices they have made."

Callis has written a letter asking for help to Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl in which he states, "The chief of staff at the Prescott VA doesn't want to spend the money out of the VA budget to save my life. The attitude is that if the VA can't do it, then you don't need it, and we're not spending the money."

He plans to write other federal legislators about his dilemma as soon as he can come up with addresses.

He also is planning a petition drive in an effort to get more VA services and staffing at the Kingman Outpatient Clinic. He will forward copies of the petitions to Kyl and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Callis would like to hear from other area veterans who are dissatisfied with VA services. He may be contacted at 757-9761.