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Illustration by Dusan Kwiatkowski ATERAVORD I BY FREDRIC ALAN MAXWELL Deep in My Heart in Texas Since my literary career was going south, I decided to join it. I loaded up my van and drove down from my adopted home state of Montana to help rebuild Louisiana and write about the experience. I spent up to 10 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, digging ditches, demolishing and constructing buildings and, using skills gained in our Navy during the Vietnam era, repairing a marina and refinishing yachts. I did double duty, keeping up the sometimes-strenuous physical labor while researching and writing a proposal for a book about the experience. Then personal disaster struck: I suffered a series of heart attacks. The major one came as I was rushed to a private hospital in Covington, Louisiana, feeling like the title character from the film Alien was growing out of my chest. I woke up in the ICU with a morphineinduced smile on my face and about six tubes stuck into me. The surgeon explained that one of the three main arteries from my heart was 90-percent blocked and another was 60-percent clogged. He made a small cut in my femoral artery, inserted a tiny balloon, and opened the big block. That’s what they call angioplasty. He then inserted a $2,000 hunk of metala stentto keep it open. Then he ordered me to rest. I sought aftercare. That’s when I began my empirical study of the seriously broken Veterans Affairs Gulf Coast Health Care System, which seemed to be actively working against my recovery until I huffed and puffed and they flew me to the famed Michael DeBakey VA hospital in Houston’s Texas Medical Center, where I received excellent care. Alas, my many superlatives describing the inpatient DeBakey treatment were replaced with expletives when I fell into a bureaucratic black hole while transitioning out. I was literally dumped onto the street with the clothes on my back in near-freezing weather. I recovered and lived to tell the tale. Here’s the condensed version. After leaving the hospital, I drove the 40 miles from Covington to the nearest VA outpatient clinic, in Slidell. I had to fight to see a doctor inside of the 30-day wait they’d initially scheduled. Insisting on the care I knew I needed when my recovery demanded rest proved frustrating. My blood pressure once went from 132 over 74 to 179 over 82 during the course of one visit to the clinic. Then they sent my nine desperately needed prescriptions 2,000 miles away, to Montana. I took their suggestion that I go to the hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi, and work with the cardiology department there. The month before, the United Health Foundation had ranked Louisiana the 49th-healthiest state in America. Mississippi is 50th. Driving past the stone wall enclosing the Biloxi hospital grounds, on a straight two-lane road under a magnificent canopy of century-old oak trees, I was taken aback to see that some idiot architect had sited a national cemetery on the right. I had to pass it to reach the main hospital building. I suppose the proximity saves on transportation costs. The care was terrible. I pushed and pushed and was able to see both a primary care physician and a cardiologist within three weeks. I still can’t figure out if the cardiologist was ignorant, incompetent, or simply inept, but as it later turned out, he just wasn’t very good. Many professional and personal friends told me, firmly, that I shouldn’t attempt to go back to work until the doctor gave me the OK. He kept ordering more tests. I became antsy. And broke. So I snuck back to work, doing double time to finish a sample chapter the agent needed to seek advance money from a publisher. Then the agent inexplicably pulled out. His lack of faith punctured me like a nail punctures a tire, and the strength and confidence I’d slowly built up rushed back out of me. Chest pains returned. I took six nitroglycerin pills one afternoon; if two don’t do the job, I’m supposed to call 911. I told this to the cardiologist a few days later. He ordered more tests, including a sonogram. Though he never explained the results to me, he must have seen MARCH 21, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29