I know. I know. The rule is: no bad news, but this is important, and my hope is that by sharing this sad, exasperating happenstance, something good will come of it.
John Gustafson, a highschool classmate of mine, died on Sunday. I have only good memories of “Gus” in school. He was a fun, earnest kid; quick to smile, always friendly and easy to like. He was a tough competitor on the wrestling mat and made it to the State-A’s in his weight class. Although we weren’t close friends, he was the kind of person you knew had your back even if he didn’t make a big deal about it.
While I left South Dakota straight out of college, John stayed in our old hometown of Brookings, became a Realtor and made a good life for himself. By all accounts, he was a successful businessman and was active in the community…until heart disease short-circuited his activities.
When I saw John at our last class reunion a year and a half ago, I was reminded that we’d nearly lost him a few years earlier when he suffered his first heart attack. The prognosis had been grim, but he’d pulled through, and we were all thrilled to see him.
We didn’t speak about his health problems at the time. We met his beautiful wife, Dawn, and heard about their three young children. We reminisced about our high school years–it was a reunion, after all.
But in December of last year, I learned that John was caught up in the fight of his life–in more ways than one.
He’d received a LVAD (left ventricular assist device), which allows blood to bypass the heart and was on the list for transplants, but he also needed to undergo dialysis five days a week.
According to the website WeCareABoutJohn.com, John was one of six LVAD patients in South Dakota. (Nationally, there are 180 total.) Unfortunately, the medical director for Prairie Lakes Health Care, which provides dialysis for patients in the Brookings area, decided the LVAD device was “experimental,” and declared that treatment would require monitoring by both a cardiologist and a nephrologist, something Prairie Lakes was unwilling to allow.
The local newspaper did a story on John last year in an effort to get the word out about his situation and what he was up against. http://bit.ly/HgXGbM
Although there was a dialysis facility just four blocks from John’s house, Prairie Lakes refused him treatment. So, John had to be driven 65 miles for the four-hour treatment then be driven back home. His treatment and the two-hour round trip commute amounted to a full time job. And because his entire day was devoted to staying alive, John couldn’t work, provide for his family, interact in normal activities with his wife and kids and friends. The commute was not conducive to building up the strength he needed to keep fighting.
It’s telling about the kind of person John was that a group of friends started the We Care About John website. These generous people, including my old friends Dick and Theanne Peterson, bucked the system. They fought for common sense and compassion. They were this close to getting John the treatment he needed locally. Unfortunately, time was not on John’s side.
John was just one man, but what happened to him could happen to any of us. We work hard to buy the best health insurance we can afford, but one petty bureaucrat with her eye on the bottom line can mean the difference between life and death. I can only hope that John’s bravery and determination pays off down the road for patients facing the same hurdles. And my heart and prayers are with John’s family…and my classmates.
Now, on a happier note, my father-in-law, Milt, made it home safe and sound–and he flew in First Class! He said he doesn’t think can fly with the “common people” again. Lol.