Let me introduce you to the most important man in my life: 87-year-old William J. “Bill” Ekwall, a World War II Veteran and former U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant. He was a turret gunner on a B-24 bomber nicknamed “The Monster,” and took part in 33 bombing missions over Germany. He is my father-in-law.
Bill is a tool and die maker by trade, ever so precise with measurements, cuts and grinds. He has a garage and a shed of tools that are the envy of any craftsman. He built model railroads and transformed scrap wood into one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork that adorn the walls of our home today. The tools lay waiting on shelves and in drawers for the hands that once finessed them with such deft precision – the hands that cared for them and gave them purpose.
But the tools have remained silent for more than a year now.
It was in 2009 that Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This degenerative brain disease has taken its toll on him. It has methodically and progressively stolen from us the man we know and love. The smile is no more, and the gleam in his blue eyes is lost somewhere in the entanglement of brain fibers that once burst with life and a contagious personality.
When Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it was through a cooperative effort between VA and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Bill’s primary care physician, assigned to him five years ago, is in fact a nurse practitioner. Carla Leuschan has the skills, knowledge, understanding and compassion that go far beyond those of any “public doctor” that cared for Bill prior to his qualifying for VA care. Leuschan and her support team of two nurses, Terry and Michael, comprise a trio of professionals that takes its work seriously and provides the best care I’ve witnessed in any medical environment. They are dedicated to their professions and committed to every Veteran that walks through the front door of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Leushcan was the first to recognize the early signs of Alzheimer’s as it began its treacherous course through Bill’s brain. She ordered tests, blood work, X-rays and CT scans; and she eventually brought the Vanderbilt expertise into the diagnosis. They only confirmed through an MRI (a test not available at Bill’s assigned VA center) what Leuschan had already feared.
In March 2013, Bill suffered severe abdominal pain, coupled with vomiting, diarrhea, extreme weakness and hallucinations. It was time to get him to the VAMC.
From the moment we entered the hospital, as we had dozens of times before, we were greeted with smiles – genuine smiles – and arms that wrapped him in familiar hugs, hands held out in recognition of a Veteran they had come to know, admire and love; a Veteran with whom they too had shared in the loss of his personality. Bill was a person they all knew and remembered, but a person who could no longer recognize and remember them. It didn’t matter. They loved this man, this Veteran, my father-in-law.
I have been blessed to have this man in my life. And I have been blessed to have the privilege of taking him – for the past five years – through the front doors of the VA hospital – to the check-in desk, to the lab for blood work, to Ms. Leuschan’s clinic, to urology, radiology for X-rays and CT scans, and to cardiology, psychology, the pharmacy and the cafeteria. At every stop, it’s a smile, a handshake, a hug, and oftentimes, a kiss on the cheek. And it’s not just Bill that receives this. It is Veteran after Veteran who streams through the daily process “at the VA,” and he or she is given, freely and openly, the hearts of these dedicated professionals.
Along the way, I have come to realize how phenomenal the staff of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center is. I’ve met people there who have spent 15, 20 and even 25 years, doing the same job, day in and day out. Yet their dedication for their responsibilities and their commitment to the Veterans they serve has never, ever wavered.
Bill is quiet tonight, lying in the tranquil setting of this ICU ward with its guardians. I don’t know what plans God has in the near future for him; but I do know that He has placed him in the hands and hearts of some very special people.