Ineligible by Michael David Todorovich

close-up of someone filling out doctor health form

 

I sat crying in front of a receptionist in pink scrubs. No. Crying isn’t the right word. Crying is something you do at the end of a sad movie. I was sobbing uncontrollably. Tears dripped from my chin onto the front of my shirt while I struggled to catch my breath between sobs.

Through this uncontrollable sobbing, I gave the receptionist my military discharge papers and told her that I just wanted some help. Help for what? I didn’t know.

She gave me all of the forms and paperwork that I needed to complete, but as I struggled to finish something as simple as my first name, I was called to an exam room in a Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center.

For a few moments, I was a regular patient. The nurse weighed me, measured me, took my blood pressure, and asked about my physical ailments. I had severe scratches on my neck that needed an explanation, but I wasn’t there to explain the final details of a failed marriage. I was there because I needed help.

She explained to me that the doctor would be in to see me in just a moment, and before leaving asked, “Do you feel like harming yourself or anyone else?”

Between sobs, I cleared the mucus that had accumulated in my throat and told her, “No, ma’am.  I just need some help.”

I didn’t bother explaining that if I were thinking of harming myself, I sure as hell wouldn’t have come to the VA. And I wouldn’t have been wearing shorts for God’s sake. Who could possibly kill themselves in shorts? I would have worn my Levi’s blue jeans, my Allman Brothers T-shirt, and a flannel button-up – good clothes for dying. And a hospital is no place to die – all of the old and broken people, the faint smell of alcohol and urine, and the incessant chatter and beeping of both man and machine. Not for me. I would have walked myself to my favorite fishing hole on the New River, sat down on a rock that protrudes over the water, casually placed my forty caliber Glock in my mouth, and squeezed the trigger. But why trouble the poor lady with details?

She seemed convinced. “Ok, sir. Do you have any guns, knives, or other weapons?”

I told her that I had my pocket knife, an olive drab switchblade that the Army had issued me.

She studied me intently and explained that the VA didn’t allow weapons on the premises and that she needed to keep my knife until I left. I understood and surrendered my blade without hassle.

Alone, I sat on an uncomfortable burgundy exam table with wheels – just in case you needed to be moved quickly or had a strong desire to race the other crazies down the hallway to the psych ward. I tried to focus on the mundane paintings of beach scenes and mountain views. I tried to find some semblance of hope in the big cabinet of exam gloves, those grape-flavored tongue depressors, or the two-by-two inch bandages. But the tears obscured my vision and my thinking.

The knife-stealing nurse lady was followed within minutes, maybe seconds, by a man, perhaps a doctor or physician’s assistant. “Hello, Mr. To…” He didn’t even bother trying to pronounce my last name. “Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else?”

I guess that they ask these questions to everyone.

“No, sir. I’d just like some help.”

He looked skeptical. “OK. OK. What’s going on?”

I tried to explain what was happening to me. I wanted to tell him that my life had fallen apart since leaving the military. I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t stand to face another day of sitting on my couch, wishing I could just go back. I wanted to tell him that I was once a respected soldier with rows of ribbons proving my worth, but that now – with my life insurance policy – I was worth more to my family dead than alive.

I wanted to tell him everything, but it was all too confused and tangled into illogical statements about going crazy and needing help. He listened as I mumbled my way through a description of my ailments: not sleeping for days at a time then passing out to avoid responsibility, feeling as if everyone hated me, racing thoughts sometimes, no thoughts at all at other times, a complete disassociation with the rest of the world, a strong desire for something to alleviate the confusion and pain spinning around in my frail mind, and complete and utter hopelessness.

The doctor wrote notes on his legal pad as he listened to me babble, then he explained that he’d need to examine me further and asked me to change into a gown. Without providing any help whatsoever, he left.

Alone again. No help. Sobbing harder.

After an excruciating wait with only myself to talk to, an orderly came into the room to gather my shoes, clothes, and other belongings. “Hey, man. Not too much longer. We’re just waiting on a bed.”

“A bed? What for? The doc’s supposed to come in to examine me.”

The orderly looked surprised. “Oh, man! Didn’t nobody tell you? They’ve got you on suicide watch.”

“Suicide watch? Oh, fuck! I just need some help. I ain’t going to kill myself.”

The orderly assured me that he’d have the doc return to explain everything and then he walked out of the room.

Alone again. No help. No hope. No nothing.

The doctor didn’t return. Instead, the first nurse, the one who stole my knife, walked into the room holding her clipboard and my clothes, shoes, and knife. “Mr. Todorovich. Our records indicate that you aren’t eligible for VA benefits. Here are your things. You’re free to go.”

“Free to go? I just need some help! I gave the receptionist my discharge papers.” I wanted to scream as loud as my hoarse throat would allow, “But I served for twelve fucking years! I was a Non-Commissioned Officer in the United States Army and now I’m nothing! You’re supposed to help me!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Todorovich. But you’re not in our system. We aren’t able to provide you any services at this time.”

The nurse left me there alone again – with my knife.

I changed clothes, put my knife back in my pocket, walked out the front door of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and didn’t kill myself.

 

michaeltodorvichMichael David Todorovich resides in West Virginia with his wife and four children. He writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and is currently drafting his first novel and revising his first collection of nature essays.

Michael earned a BA from West Virginia University Institute of Technology where he won first place poetry and first place prose in the university’s literary magazine, Image.  He completed his MA in English and creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

When he’s not spending time with his family or writing, Michael enjoys walking, canoeing, and studying literature.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Anoto AB
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  • Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

    Brilliant essay, Michael! Bravo!