Former Army Ranger Matt Meloni was in Houston for treatment at a VA hospital for prostate cancer when the worst of the storms flooded the city Tuesday. And then he got appendicitis.
He was at a hotel two miles from the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and had no way to get there.
"Immediately, my training as a Ranger kicked in, and I knew I needed to get myself to the VA," he said.
He ignored the pain, sized up the situation and improvised.
He mapped out a street route to the Department of Veterans Affairs facility on his phone. He went to the front desk and grabbed scissors, duct tape and a garbage bag. He put the phone in the garbage bag, tied it round his body and began his trek in what he described as "excruciating pain."
It was one foot in front of the other through chest-high waters and a hard rain. Sometimes, he had to swim when the water was over his head.
Somehow, he made it to the VA hospital's emergency room.
"I came here in the middle of a weather event, where it would be not reasonable to get the level of service I was provided," the 38-year-old Meloni said of his arrival at the hospital, where 700 staffers had volunteered to remain through the storm and were sleeping on floors and cots.
"I came here in the middle of a hurricane, got laparoscopic surgery in the middle of the night from an amazing surgeon here," he said in an account of his ordeal on the DeBakey center website.
"The bottom line is, this was great. The VA did a bang-up job on this one, absolutely a bang-up job," he said. "When it comes down to bottom-line mission accomplishment, my perception of the VA through this experience has changed 1,000 percent."
"My treatment was spot on and squared away. There's no private entity that could have done this better," Meloni said.
To sum it up, "the VA pulled it off," he said.
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Dr. Christy Chai, chief of general surgery and surgical oncology who operated on Meloni, said it was a team effort.
"One thing I went to emphasize is that surgery is a team sport, so even though I was the staff surgeon, we had the chief of anesthesia already in house, as well as the operating room nurse manager and her staff of nurses and technicians -- all ready to go," she said.
"We had some staff stay in since Friday, in anticipation of this Category 4 hurricane and, as a hospital, we were well prepared in anticipation of these emergencies," said Chai, an eight-year Air Force veteran.
She had her own problems getting to the VA just in time to operate on Meloni. Although she lives nearby, Chai couldn't reach the hospital and had to wait for the hospitals police chief and his assistant to come get her.
Meloni, who lives in Oklahoma, had flown to Houston earlier in the week for a scheduled procedure at the Houston VA.
"I recently found out I popped positive for prostate cancer," he said. "I flew to Houston to get treatment and undergo surgery. I was scheduled for surgery on the 28th, but then the hurricane hit."
While he waited at the hotel, he went to a store and stocked up on food. "After returning to the hotel and having dinner, I felt pain in my lower abdomen," he said.
"At the onset, I thought it could just be a stomach ache, but I soon realized that wasn't the case. I Googled appendicitis and realized it was a very serious situation. Immediately, my training as a Ranger kicked in and I knew I needed to get myself to the VA."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.