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Compassion, comfort and caring

RIVER FALLS — Freedom isn't free. The price many veterans paid for America's freedom far exceeds what most people could fathom.

River Falls veteran Ed Figi has had more than 60 surgeries since his honorable discharge from the U.S. military in 1989. Surgeons have reconstructed his elbows and wrists and rewired the nerves in his hands. He's had knee, shoulder and upper arm surgeries. He has lost parts of feet to multiple amputations. All this stems from injuries received while in the service.

Figi faces another round of surgeries, which began Tuesday, Nov. 8. This operation removed polyps and growths potentially caused by exposure to contaminated drinking water supplies at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Figi was stationed in the 1980s.

Despite the challenges, Figi expresses gratitude.

"On this Veterans Day, it's a year since I almost died," Figi said during an interview at his kitchen table Thursday, Nov. 3. "I was given last rites two or three times. But now a year later I'm independent in my own home and can walk a bit."

Figi credits Pierce County Public Health Department registered nurse Dianne Brooke for the miracle of his independence.

Brooke is one of three home care nurses who serve 35 clients in the county, 11 of them veterans. She visits Figi once a week to manage his medications, help him with Veterans Affairs paperwork and most of all, be a friend.

"It helps to have a caregiver from your community who knows you," Figi said. "I don't know where I would've been the last three to four amputations to my feet if Dianne hadn't come. Probably locked away in the (VA) community living center."

November is Home Care and Hospice Month; Nov. 13-19 is designated as Home Care Aide Week.

Brooke has been a public health nurse for nearly 28 years. She has cared for Figi for seven years; the number of visits per week varies based on his needs. For example, after one of his amputations, he needed wound cleaning and bandaging assistance three times per week.

"We go with what they need," Brooke said. "We do everything with physician orders."

Pierce County Home Care has provided health care services to Pierce County residents since 1970. Anyone experiencing an illness, injury or recovery from surgery can be referred.

A life of service

Figi emigrated from Mexico to Pierce County with his mother as a boy. She married an area man and he grew up on a farm between Ellsworth and River Falls, graduating from River Falls High School.

He first enlisted as a U.S. Navy combat corpsman, earning the rank of 2nd class petty officer after two years. He also served a total of 15 years in the U.S. Navy Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps Special Ops and U.S. Marine Corps Army Reserve.

Figi saw several deployments, including action in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 1976 "when they were shooting at us again," he said. He somberly speaks of two U.S. Army officers "being hacked to death with axes in full view" by North Koreans while cutting down a poplar tree, which prompted the launch of Operation Paul Bunyan.

He was sent to South America during the rise of the Iran Contra Wars, which he described as "spending American lives to prop up regimes. It was not a good thing for our country."

He looked into the distance as memories surfaced of those years, describing the killing squads in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras; the U.S. government trying to overthrow Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega; the ethnic cleansing of the Mayans in Guatemala and El Salvador; and trying to make sense of druglords operating with impunity in Honduras.

While in El Salvador, he suffered a spinal cord injury in an explosion. One of his friends died. Figi's elbows were blown open. Scars make ribbons down his arms where he was put back together.

At the end of 1985, he entered the web of the V.A. medical care system, where he lingered for about two years. At first he was given a low disability rating, but with advocates former Pierce County Veterans Services Officer Irvin Yelle and Sen. Russ Feingold, he was granted 100 percent disability and discharged in 1989.

Figi said many of his comrades in South America were injured or killed. Many times the families had no idea what really happened to them.

"Several weren't acknowledged, but a medal would come in the mail years later (after someone's deathbed confession)," Figi said. "It's a long, sad chapter in the misuse of special ops."

Health problems

While stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Figi and hundreds of thousands of others were potentially exposed to drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene, lubricants, degreasers and other chemicals, he said.

In 2012 the Camp Lejeune declared cost-free health care for certain conditions to veterans who served at least 30 days active duty there from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1987.

"All that yellow ribbon ha-ha, it means nothing," Figi said of the law. "It's not funded. They have found no way to help those ex-service members. They tell us to go to the VA.

"We respect the enemy — they're only doing their jobs. But for your own government to kill you, it's a stab in the back."

When talking about health care through the VA, Figi stresses the kindness and care of the staff. It's the policies that stink, he said. That and being mired in interminable waiting lists.

A year ago, Figi had an extended stay in the cardiac care unit of United Hospital in St. Paul for pericardial effusion (fluid in the pericardial cavity and around the heart). The VA missed the problem for two years, he said. He finally collapsed at home. His children rushed him to the emergency room where staff extracted 67 pounds of fluid from his abdomen.

The county cares

Figi said he finds comfort in knowing Brooke will help him manage when he gets home. She is in contact with his doctors and pharmacist to develop home care plans and to return him to his health baseline.

Figi stresses to other veterans, go to the VA, enroll if eligible, talk to a social worker and have him or her connect with the county public health department. The help is there, he said.

"You earned it," he said about veterans. "Dude, lady, you earned it! It's one heck of a way for your fellow citizens and county to value your service."

Brooke said the VA covers the expenses of nine of the 11 Pierce County veterans the county serves. Pierce County Public Health nurses perform skilled assessments, medication management, health education, IV therapy, supervision, case management and wound care in clients' homes.

Figi said Brooke helps him navigate "the medication minefield" he must travel through each day. She helps him manage prescription refills, dosage changes, amounts, paperwork and pharmacist instructions.

Before she came on board, sometimes he would take the wrong medication at the wrong time, or think he was taking the right one but accidentally take another. It really got confusing when a pharmaceutical company would change the color or shape of a pill, or if he missed a refill.

Seven years ago, Figi developed an allergy to morphine, which was used to control his spinal pain. He suffered eight concussions from passing out and hitting his head. The last time, his blood pressure crashed in the emergency room and he "coded out," he said. He woke up strapped to a bed, suffering from acute kidney failure. His VA doctor at the time referred him the Pierce County Public Health Department, and Brooke came on the case.

"Referrals come from case managers, the VA, social workers," Brooke said. "We make a list and within 48 hours of a referral, we do an assessment and set up a plan."

Since Brooke began caring for Figi, his medications have been cut in half. What was eight to nine pages of prescriptions has dwindled to four or five. He hasn't had any amputations related to his brittle diabetes in years. He reports his anxiety is less. The social contact has diminished his post traumatic stress symptoms.

"It's not really the doctors' faults," Figi said of the medication nightmare many veterans go through. "Most vets go through several different departments, which causes conflicts in medications and schedules. It's a nightmare and overwhelming. It's not that we're lazy.

"Many don't know if they're coming or going. If they had help like I do, there would be less hoops and it would be less confounding."

He urges veterans, especially those from the Vietnam era, to see Pierce County Veterans Services Officer David Till.

"Many of my buddies from the Vietnam period seem to have had it with the VA," Figi said. "Their experiences coming back home, I can't blame them. But the intangible appreciation I feel from these services makes me feel sincerely appreciated. I earned it. It's not a dole."

He is thankful for the care of his two sons and daughter, but admits their field of expertise is compassion for their dad. They're not health care professionals.

Brooke teared up as Figi thanked her for her care. She said that one time a friend expressed sympathy for her when she had to work Memorial Day. But to her, caring for veterans on that day couldn't be more fitting.

"They have done so much for us," Brooke said. "This is what I can do for them."

For more information on home care services, call 715-273-6756.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in February 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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