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Invisible Wounds, Part Three
By Joseph Giannini
October 30, 2013
Veteran: Joseph Giannini
VA Claim: Chronic Ischemic Coronary Heart Disease caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam 1967-1968
Service: USMC 1966-1970
Military Occupational Status: Infantry
Rank: Captain USMC retired 0101088
Veteran's Statement in support of Agent Orange Claim
I am 73 years old. Since 1973 I have practiced criminal defense law as a trial attorney. I am known for taking on difficult cases, including organized crime, drug cartels, and murders.
In 1975, during my first felony trial, I defended an Army Vietnam War Veteran who was framed, by overzealous anti-crime police officers, for selling drugs. He had been indicted under the recently enacted Rockefeller Drug Laws. He was facing an A-1 mandatory sentence of 15-Life. The same sentence for a Murder 2 conviction. He went into the laws of death and was found not guilty.
My next felony trial could be my last, I am defending an Army Desert Storm Veteran, being held without bail for 18 months. Why? Because the judge and ADA, know my client is a combat veteran and claim he is too dangerous to be out on bail. He too was framed by crooked police officers. This coming trial and the one above could be great bookends for my career.
In 2010, I signed up, at the urging of a WWII Veteran, with the VA for health care. That same year I filed two service-connected claims. One for PTSD and the other for hearing loss. Both are pending before the Veteran's Board of Appeals. What is that I heard? "Delay, delay, deny, delay, delay, die."
On a regular basis, I began to visit the new VA Clinic in Riverhead, New York. Dr. Richard Castagnino was assigned as my Primary Care Physician. He proved to be a no-nonsense outstanding PCP.
In the early fall of 2012, I visited Dr. Castagnino for another checkup at the Clinic. Moments after arriving, a VA Nurse brought me into her office. She interviewed me and did the regular tests. Then she walked me into the Doctor's office. I took a seat and waited while he, seated, intently read. After several minutes of silence, he abruptly got up and indicated for me to follow him. I went into the hallway. He turned back to me holding my EKG results, and said, "You have an abnormally low heart rate. And you must go to our Northport Hospital for further tests." I did not even think to ask a few questions before Dr. Castagnino went back into his office and shut his door. A man of few words.
Thus began the long trips, eighty-five miles to and from, to the Northport VA Hospital, for a series of tests to determine if I had heart disease. No way I could have. A low heart rate is common amongst athletes. I, for certain, was athletic from my early teens to the present. I worked out regularly with weights; still do. I wrestled, played baseball and football. At 18 I got addicted to surfing. I still surf, even through winters. At Parris Island and Officer Candidate School, I scored the highest on the Physical Fitness Tests. My weight, 145 lbs., is the same as in my teens.
For the next several months I was given a series of tests at the Northport VA Hospital. These included the following: Electrocardiogram, Stress test, Chest X-Ray, Nuclear Scans, Echocardiogram, and Holter Monitor. The doctors and technicians hardly said anything to me about the tests. I assumed they were all negative. Not a word was spoken about Agent Orange. Nor did I think about it re: heart disease.
Nikki, my spouse for 35 years, was not satisfied with the VA testing. She was born with several congenital heart defects. On January 5, 2010, Nikki underwent open-heart surgery to repair her damaged heart. It was done on the advice of her long-time cardiologist Dr. Geoffrey Bergman who practices at NewYork-Presbyterian. Nikki convinced him to take me on as a new patient, even though he had stopped doing so.
In December 2012, Dr. Bergman started the same series of tests I had gone through at the VA. With the same negative results. In early July 2013, he told Nikki and I that he could not justify doing a Cardiac Catheterization. Nikki insisted he do it based on her observations of my behavior. Dr. Bergman relented and scheduled the test for July 24, 2013.
On July 23, 2013, I appeared in Nassau County Court for Joseph Lorenzo the Desert Storm Vet. After his case was put over for trial, we spoke in the holding area. He was still being detained without bail. I reassured him the trial would start in August. Not sure whether I said anything about the test coming up the following day.
On July 24, 2013, Nikki and I drove into Manhattan for my test appointment at NYP. While driving she reassured me that a Cardio Cat test was not painful and lasted about a half-hour. Nikki knew because she previously had two. Further, Dr. Bergman, who she trusted completely, would do the test.
That morning Dr. Bergman's technicians prepared me for the Cardio Cat Test. Then he took over. Some time went by, and I fell asleep. I woke and sensed that way more than a half-hour had come and gone. Dr. Bergman approached and kneeled close to me. And said, "I am humbled by the number of blockages in your coronary arteries. You need surgery." I was taken aback. Could not grasp what he meant. Nor did I feel a sense of urgency. I was taken into the recovery room.
Nikki was there waiting for me with Doctor Karl Krieger, a heart surgeon. He explained to us that I had Chronic Ischemic Coronary Heart Disease. Nikki asked how serious it was. He replied 90% of my coronary arteries are blocked. That me being in excellent shape had put off a heart attack for 30 years. Now it could occur at any moment. He advised Quadruple Bypass Surgery there and then, which meant I would be staying for the operation and recovery. I told Dr. Krieger that is impossible. I have clients depending on me. Got dressed and Nikki and I left the hospital. Her cell phone rang as we entered a restaurant nearby. It was Dr. Bergman. He wanted me to come back immediately. I refused but did agree to return on August 1, 2013, for the advised surgery. Thinking it would be enough time to get my practice in order. Turned out it was not.
On July 31, 2013, Nikki and I returned to Manhattan and stayed overnight in a hotel nearby NYP. On August 1, 2013, just after 6 am, I was in the pre-op room. A young doctor, part of the surgical team, made small talk with me. I came to near midnight on August 1, 2013.
Then, five days in the ICU. Nurses round the clock. Some could not hide their concern. One, a moment after she started my second blood transfusion, came close and whispered, "You know you've been through a lot." She too, and all the others, above and beyond.
Early on the morning of August 2, 2013, the same young doctor who spoke with me in pre-op, came to see me. During his brief visit, he told me they had opened me twice. I thought that could be the reason I woke up near midnight. Later that morning Dr. Krieger came by with a small entourage. He made some small talk avoiding any specifics about the operations. Within several minutes he was gone. Entourage and all.
After eight days I left NYP weighing 133 lbs. Down 14 from 147 lbs. And physically the weakest I have ever been. My recovery so far has suffered several troubling setbacks. I learned there is no cure for heart disease.
Through all the above I did not realize the VA, since October 30, 2010, has presumed ischemic heart disease is associated with exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The above decision is, better late than never, good for Vietnam Vets still alive and suffering from ischemic heart disease. They can get benefits and care but never a cure. All Vietnam War Veterans were unknowing victims of our leaders' unlawful decision to use chemical warfare against the Vietnamese. These weapons, mostly Agent Orange, were sprayed on the Vietnamese for ten years! The spraying caused widespread destruction of Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies.
Surprise, surprise, the chemicals used in Agent Orange got into the bodies of those exposed. Did "The Best and the Brightest" foresee the coming, ongoing and unrelenting human tragedies? They were bright enough to know none would ever be held accountable.
Capt. USMC Retired
Note: My defense of Veteran Joseph Lorenzo was my last trial. The jury found him not guilty of all charges. Free at last.
Note: On June 23, 2015, the VA, after delaying five years, settled my claims. They decided I was totally and permanently disabled due to my service-connected disabilities and unemployable.
Note: Since my open-heart surgery I got two more stents and a Pacemaker.
Ominous note: I have two sons from different women. The oldest from my first marriage is Schizophrenic. The youngest from my second marriage is Bipolar. Two more human tragedies, amongst the millions, from so long ago.
Joseph Giannini, a local criminal defense attorney, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the First Battalion, Third Marines. A victim of Agent Orange, he is currently writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.