Maine: Passed A Law That Could Harm Animals And Their Veterinarians…Part 1

Maine: Passed A Law That Could Harm Animals And Their Veterinarians…Part 1

Like nearly every state, Maine is dealing with an opiate and heroin epidemic. In 2015, Maine experienced 272 overdose related fatalities.

In an effort to combat the opiate epidemic, the Maine Legislature enacted   P.L. 2015, ch. 488 (An Act to Prevent Opiate Abuse by Strengthening the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program) which became effective January 1, 2017. PL 488 affects nearly all facets of healthcare by establishing specific rules for prescribing and dispensing controlled medications. It defines the protocols that must be followed and sets prescription limits on how much opiate a patient may legally be prescribed to take per day. This is called the Aggregate Morphine Milligram Equivalent and the total daily amount allowed is 100 Morphine Milligram Equivalents (100 MMEs).

PL 488 mandates that whenever a medical provider prescribes a controlled substance, they first check the PMP (Prescription Monitoring Program) to review the MME for the patient, what controlled drugs the patient is currently taking, who prescribed them and the pharmacy that filled the prescription. They must calculate if the drug they want to prescribe will, when added to the patient’s current daily MMEs, increase the allowed 100 MMEs and if so, not prescribe it. They must note if there are multiple prescriptions, providers or pharmacies. If the provider notices anything in the patients PMP profile that raises a red flag, they are required by law to report it to the PMP Coordinator. There are of course many other components to PL 488 but I only want to touch on the highlights and how it impacts Maine residents who are pet owners in addition to veterinarians. Yes, that’s correct ~ veterinarians because Maine’s Legislatures have determined that the inclusion of veterinarians in PL 488 will help reduce the opiate epidemic. I disagree because including veterinarians in PL 488 creates two major violations. First, however, I’d like to walk you through a veterinarian’s education.

If a young person thinks they want to become a veterinarian, they should begin preparing in high school by paying attention to their performance in science courses, such as chemistry, biology, and physics. This same attention applies to math courses; trigonometry, geometry, and algebra. After high school graduation the student attends a 4 year college to earn their bachelor’s degree where they take the prerequisite courses for admittance into veterinary college.These consist of many advanced science courses, such as biochemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, and physics. They are necessary to prepare the student for the vigorous coursework in veterinary college. Prospective veterinarians must complete a doctor of veterinary medicine degree. Typically, a doctorate in veterinary medicine takes four years to complete. Of these four years, three are spent on classroom training where students take courses in animal anatomy and physiology. They also take courses on disease diagnosis, prevention and treatment. After completing three years of classroom training, students take another year left to complete their degree in veterinary medicine. The fourth year is typically spent getting practical, hands-on training. This takes the form of a one-year clinical rotation in a veterinary medical center or veterinary hospital to gain experience in a variety of areas of veterinary medicine. After graduating with a doctorate in veterinary medicine, veterinarians are not yet able to open a practice. Before practicing veterinary medicine, graduates must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination and any applicable state exams. Their path is definitely not a short one but throughout it is focused primarily on one thing ~ animal anatomy, physiology and wellness. 

Maines’s new PL 488 and its impact on veterinarians is such. If an owner takes their pet to be seen and the veterinarian feels it necessary to prescribe a narcotic or benzodiazepine for your pet, they must first do a check on the owner with DHHS to determine if the owner is taking a controlled substance. As I previously mentioned I still need to clarify the parameters but the fact that a veterinarian or perhaps his staff has the power to access a person’s prescriptions is a huge HIPAA violation. But I digress. Let’s use a hypothetical situation. The owner has an anxiety disorder for which he takes Valium on a daily basis. He also has a severe back issue (long-term) so is on hydrocodone for pain control. His cat is hit by a car and taken to the vet where she undergoes successful emergency surgery but because her injuries are severe, the vet prescribes a pain medication; hydrocodone. Would the fact that the owner is on hydrocodone prohibit the vet from prescribing it for the cat’s postoperative pain? If so, would he be allowed to prescribe a different pain medication such as tramadol which also falls in the opiate category? Is he is prohibited from prescribing any narcotic because the owner is on two (2)?  Or is it only if the owner is on the same drug? If his prescriptive powers are limited because the owner is taking a controlled substance, what criteria is used to determine if the animal can or cannot get a prescription?

Whilst I understand the opiate epidemic our country is tackling, how can a veterinarian or anyone for that matter be absolutely certain that a person who is taking several controlled drugs is abusing or trafficking? Plus the thought that an innocent animal might have to suffer needlessly because his owner is on a controlled substance is not only abhorrent but inhumane.  I want to know if it’s possible for the check to be done during non-business hours when DHHS is closed. Does the veterinarian’s office have to speak directly to a DHHS employee or is the information accessible online? And if it is accessible online, how can we, the human patient, be assured it’s secure? If the drug check on the owner can’t be done when DHHS is closed, then what happens to the animal who is in pain?  Any pet owner knows that many accidents happen at night, weekends or holidays when government agencies like DHHS are closed; what then?  Going back to HIPAA, who has authority within the veterinary practice to request the DHHS information? Can a receptionist do it? A vet tech? Or only the veterinarian? Finally, I do not understand how PL 488, a state law, can override HIPAA, a federal law enacted in 1996 by Congress and signed into effect by then President Bill Clinton. Under HIPAA an individual’s medical and other health information including prescriptions is private and protected. The Privacy Law sets limits on who can look at and receive our health information such as covered entities and their business associates. As a nurse and former Union representative, I am extremely familiar with HIPAA. In light of PL 488, however, I reviewed it once again and nowhere did I find where veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or veterinary employees of any type are entitled to our records in any form. Additionally, PL 488 is, in essence, requiring veterinarians to understand human medication dosages compared to animals which often differ greatly.

I chose a veterinary team for my German Shepherd based on their reputations and expertise in animal physiology, not human. I value all members of her team despite being in different practices because of their knowledge. Having said that, I expect they keep current with the newest modalities of treatment for my dog. They work long hours yet now the State of Maine expects them to undertake additional training in order to understand and monitor the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP)?  A program historically used only for humans?

This is ludicrous. There has to be a middle ground, a way the government, human healthcare providers, and law enforcement can work together in an effort to reduce the rampant drug abuse without violating a person’s rights or including veterinarians where there is potential for an animal to suffer because “something” raises a red flag when in reality it could be legitimate.

Veterinary Visits In Maine Just Got Complicated…

Veterinary Visits In Maine Just Got Complicated…

Like nearly every state, Maine is dealing with an opiate and heroin epidemic. In 2015, Maine experienced 272 overdose related fatalities. In January 2017 one of Maine’s media outlets, WMTW, did an outstanding feature entitled Goodnight moon, goodnight mum,’ ‘Chronicle’ investigates Maine’s heroin epidemic. Anchor David Charns did a phenomenal job detailing the pain and heartache of addiction through a series of interviews and videos including one with Oxford County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Matthew Baker Sergeant who, moments after arriving home from work in February 2015, discovered his 23-year-old daughter Ronni near death in the upstairs bathroom. Despite CPR from her father and several doses of Narcan by paramedics, she died, leaving behind an 11-month-old daughter Claire. Ronni’s daughter, now 2, lives with her grandparents and is the source of the name of the WMTW article:

When Claire asks for her mother, she and her grandfather look up, past that second-floor bathroom, to the sky. “I’ve always told her that that full moon is mum,” Baker said. “We go outside, and she says, ‘Goodnight moon and goodnight mum.'”

In an effort to combat the Maine opiate epidemic, the Maine Legislature enacted Public Law 488 which became effective January 1, 2017. PL488 affects nearly all facets of healthcare except in this law, veterinarians are included. I didn’t have all the exact data on PL488 so reached out to my State Senator, Thomas Saviello. I must tell you, he is the only government official to respond during the two weeks I called and emailed various agencies, elected officials including the State House. A sad indictment against them but a huge kudos for Senator Saviello. 

What I do know about PL488 and its impacts on veterinarians is such. If an owner takes their pet to be seen and the veterinarian feels it necessary to prescribe a narcotic or benzodiazepine for your pet, they must first do a check on the owner with DHHS to determine if the owner is taking a controlled substance. As I previously mentioned I still need to clarify the parameters but the fact that a veterinarian or perhaps his staff has the power to access a person’s prescriptions is a huge HIPAA violation. But I digress. Let’s use a hypothetical situation. The owner has an anxiety disorder for which he takes Valium on a daily
basis. He also has a severe back issue (long-term) so is on hydrocodone for pain control. His cat is hit by a car and taken to the vet where she undergoes successful emergency surgery but because her injuries are severe, the vet prescribes a pain medication; hydrocodone. Would the fact that the owner is on hydrocodone prohibit the vet from prescribing it for the cat’s postoperative pain? If so, would he be allowed to prescribe a different pain medication such as tramadol which also falls in the opiate category? Is
he is prohibited from prescribing any narcotic because the owner is on two (2)?  Or is it only if the owner is on the same drug? If his prescriptive powers are limited
because the owner is taking a controlled substance, what criteria is used to determine if the animal can or cannot get a prescription?

Whilst I understand the opiate epidemic our country is tackling, how can a veterinarian or anyone for that matter be absolutely certain that a person who is taking several controlled drugs is abusing or trafficking? Plus the thought that an innocent animal might have to suffer needlessly because his owner is prescribed a controlled substance is not only abhorrent but inhumane.  I want to know if it’s possible for the check to be done during non-business hours when DHHS is closed. Does the veterinarian’s office have to speak directly to a DHHS employee or is the information accessible online? And if it is accessible online, how can we, the human patient, be assured it’s secure? If the drug check on the owner can’t be done when DHHS is closed, then what happens to the animal who is in pain?  Any pet owner knows that many accidents happen at night, weekends or holidays when government agencies like DHHS are closed; what then?  Going back to HIPAA, who has authority within the veterinary practice to request the DHHS information? Can a receptionist do it? A vet tech? Or only the veterinarian? Finally, I do not understand how PL488, a state law, can override HIPAA, a federal law enacted in 1996 by Congress and signed into effect by then-President Bill Clinton. Under HIPAA an individual’s medical and other health information including prescriptions is private and protected. The Privacy Law sets limits on who can look at and receive our health information such as covered entities and their business associates. As a nurse and former Union representative, I am extremely familiar with HIPAA. In light of PL488, however, I reviewed it once again and nowhere did I find where veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or veterinary employees of any type are entitled to our records in any form. Additionally, PL488 is, in essence, requiring veterinarians to understand human medication dosages compared to animals which often differ greatly.hipaa_violations_by_type_-_pie_chart

I chose a veterinary team for my German Shepherd based on their reputations and expertise in animal physiology, not human. I value all members of her team despite being in different practices because of their knowledge. Having said that, I expect they keep current with the newest modalities of treatment for my dog. They work long hours yet now the State of Maine expects them to undertake additional training in order to understand and monitor the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP)?  A program historically used only for humans?

This is ludicrous. There has to be a middle ground, a way the government, human healthcare providers, and law enforcement can work together in an effort to reduce the rampant drug abuse without violating a person’s rights or including veterinarians where there is potential for an animal to suffer because “something” raises a red flag when in reality it could be legitimate.

Once I have all the specifics, I’ll revisit this in a future post.

funny-dog-pictures-your-dog-has-a-tummyache

K9 Deaths; A Minor Accomplishment …

K9 Deaths; A Minor Accomplishment …

I’ve been a bit quiet lately. Partially because I’ve been working on getting my German Shepherd Sasha’s blog online
 and up to date. But I’ve also taken my passion for K9s who die unnecessarily because of handler negligence to a new level. An “I’m in your face and not going away” kind of level. Many animal activists have attempted to enlist me in their causes but emotionally I know my limitations. I’m aware of the dog trade in China, the killing of whales and the lucrative trophy hunting industry but I simply cannot look at graphic images nor participate in campaigns.
What I can do however is use my voice to  both raise public awareness and put pressure on police departments to take punitive action when a K9 officer dies because a handler left the dog in a closed squad car while he ran errands, went to the fair, or helped a friend fix a lawnmower – all in 90 F heat. Departments  have historically circled the wagons around handlers, referring to K9 deaths as “tragic accidents”. Yes its tragic but it’s definitely not an accident.  No responsible law enforcement officer “forgets” his partner, a dog so highly trained  and committed to its job they put themselves in harm’s way to protect the handler. And for the most part, K9 handlers are phenomenal in the care they give their 4 legged partners. Sadly these excellent human/dog teams are being eclipsed by the heinous cruelty of a few. Former Lt. Dan Peabody,  Cherokee County GA, left K9 Inka, 4-year-old  Belgium Malinois, in his hot patrol car where she died ~ suffering terribly in the process as death is neither swift nor kind. Peabody was so emotionally distraught he had to be treated at the hospital. Soon however the dark side emerged, the evil that embodied Dan Peabody  revealed who he really was, a serial dog killer. For not only did he allow K9 Inka to literally roast to death, but he executed his retired K9 Dale ~ a  yellow lab. When authorities excavated Peabody’s yard expecting to find K9 Dale’s remains,  they instead found a third dog who’d been shot in the back of the head. The dog, a female,  had been approximately 10 years old at the time of  death. Since the body exhumed was also a Belgium Malinois, authorities believe the dead female  may have been K9 Inka’s grandmother. Peabody by all accounts seemed “normal”. Heavily tattooed and muscular, he was the affable police lieutenant who, with K9 Inka, was assigned to the Cherokee County School District. As the evidence demonstrated, he was anything but normal. And he’s among a handful of police whose K9 partners have died as a direct result of their callous and irresponsible behaviors. I’ve previously written about K9 Totti  in PA and K9 Bak in OK.  K9 Bak was left in the hot car for over  37 hours without food, water, ventilation;  his handler never once checked on him. Instead, he smelled K9 Bak’s body on the way to work! Yet these are the same individuals we are taught to turn to for help? That their job is to protect us? I wouldn’t trust the care of a houseplant to these irresponsible officers whose negligence causes the deaths of excellent K9 officers in a most excruciating way. Just think about being locked in a hot car and fighting for every  breath until you couldn’t breathe anymore! Very heart wrenching and inexcusable!

 

inside-of-police-car-destroyed

The further I dig the more appalled, no make that outraged, I become. Not just with the police but the sick sadistic predators in society who are committing more and more hateful and egregious acts of cruelty against domestic animals. Raping a dog, sodomizing a puppy, strangling kittens with USB cords, stealing and  dismembering a family dog. Is this today’s norm? Has society really disintegrated to the point where people of all ages brutally abuse animals and think its acceptable? Or has it been going on all along but now the burgeoning of  social media brings the horror to our computers and tablets? In a recent case at Baylor University in TX,  Ishmael Zamora was given a 3 game suspension  by the football team after a video appeared online of him beating his young Rottweiler with a belt and kicking him to the point where the dog cried in pain. All because the poor Rottie had a pee accident.

At Missouri State College, yet another football player abused his neighbors dog Luca  whom he was entrusted to watch. Breck Ruddick admitted to “loosing his cool”, striking the 42# dog then allowing him to run away while bleeding. The owner put out an urgent plea on social media and a woman who found the injured and still bleeding dog quickly brought him home. Luca had been struck so hard that his jaw was shattered. Not broken ~ shattered! He required surgery, had 6 teeth removed and received numerous sutures.

In Florida a 20-year-old  UFC student severely abused his 17 week old puppy eventually causing the pups death. Luke Stribling  kicked and punched  his Shibu Inu puppy Julian, also for pee pee accidents. He was ticketed for cruelty in June yet the puppy remained with him until he finally killed him at 17 weeks old!! During the first veterinarian visit (for a broken leg) the vet said Julian had multiple fractures both old and new and that the pup literally shook from severe pain.  She asked Stribling why he didn’t seek medical care earlier for the pain Julian was in; Stribling said he didn’t know. Less than 2 weeks later Stribling  brought the dead puppy to a different vet who notified authorities. Investigators said an autopsy indicated the puppy had suffered severe internal injuries, including a hemorrhaged eye, liver and brain. An innocent puppy, a living sentient being. Tortured and killed for what? Urinating in the student’s apartment? Death at barely  4 months combined with the timeline of his injuries clearly show Julian was abused for most of his life since Stribling got the pup at 8 weeks old.

It takes a very sick and malicious person to do this to any living creature but it’s especially heinous when it’s done to a defenseless animal. Or a K9 officer. Animals look to us for guidance, love, nourishment and safety yet some humans are incapable of rendering the most basic of things.  We have to be their voice for they’re being abused, tortured and killed at an alarming rate. And many by youth who for all intent and purpose represent the leaders of tomorrow. I shudder to think how our country will thrive with evil at the helm.

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As to the title and header picture for this post? It refers to Deputy Tommy Willcox of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in Alachua County  FL. I’ve been writing and tweeting about him for what seems forever. A brief synopsis about Deputy Willcox. On July 8, 2016 Willcox put his partner K9 Robbie, a 6½-year-old Belgian Malinois, into his squad car at the end of a shift and drove home.  He left K9 Robbie in the car while he went to meet his family at another location. Yes the car was equipped with a safety monitoring system to detect heat but ONLY works if the car is running!  Safety monitoring system aside, how does one “forget” their partner of SIX YEARS? On a day so hot (98) it almost broke a previous record set in 1991? In that type of heat a dog will begin to experience distress in a matter of minutes. K9 Officer Robbie was named after Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller of Oviedo, FL who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2008. K9 Robbie however was simply murdered by his partner in America after faithfully serving the department for 6 years. Wilcox had another K9, Kozar, that he adopted when the dog retired. In 2008, Wilcox said Kozar was limping and going blind so this Floridian example of toxic waste had his buddy put on a bite sleeve,  engage Kozar in bite work while Wilcox took his weapon and shot Kozar to death. Wilcox said he considered it a humane form of euthanasia and Sheriff Sadie Darnell supported his decision because Wilcox grew up on on a pig farm .  Sheriff Darnell said “Wilcox had killed more than 100 animals – mostly pigs – that same way.”

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Who gets off in any way, shape or form by being cruel to animals? It is one of the most baffling and sickening psychological perversions I’ve ever encountered. I believe that penalties for the mistreatment of animals must be harsher and more strictly enforced. These people don’t belong among us. Some say, “They’re only animals…” Exactly. Abuse an animal, go to jail. For a long time! And Deputy Wilcox was at the top of my list because there was and still is no way I can condone or even undestand his culpability in the death of TWO dogs. So my campaign began. I stated a media firestorm, targeting not only the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Alachua County but all the Florida media, the Chamber of Commerce, and Tourism Bureau. Let’s put it like this, if there was a organization I found them. I sent Tweets jointly to the Sheriff’s Office  and the County asking how long before Wilcox killed the next K9? I actually scheduled my tweets to ensure I didn’t forget. Finally on Oct  3, three months after K9 Robbie’s death, Deputy Wilcox was suspended for 6 days without pay and removed from the K-9 unit where he had been the lead trainer. While it won’t bring Robbie back nor give Kozar the end of life treatment he deserved,  it’s a small step forward ~ I’ll take it.

K9

The first to sense the hostility of a suspect,
The first to react to protect his master.
The first to enter where danger lurks.
The first to detect the hidden intruder.
The first to take action against violence.
The first to sense his master’s joy.
The first to know his master’s sorrow or fear.
The first to give his life in defense of his master.
The last to be forgotten by those who work with others like him.
They know him as a “Partner,” not just an animal.

 

I’m Floundering but You’re Still Gone…

I’m Floundering but You’re Still Gone…

Another day filled with a myriad of emotions, none of them positive or constructive. My dear friend remains in the morgue, 22 days after his suicide. I still can’t fathom how his next of kin can allow this to continue, how they can have so little respect for a man who shared the family name for 60 years. Is this really how families act? When the childhood you shared has long gone, does all sense of respect and dignity go with it? Do people stop caring about civility when they reach a certain age? Do they become so involved in their own lives that the years they  shared long ago with family simply fade?

I struggle with these questions every single day yet I can’t form an opinion or come to a definitive conclusion. I’m disillusioned, angry and incredibly sad . I’m angry that he chose to pull the trigger with saying goodbye, angry that he couldn’t hold the dark grip of depression at bay, angry that I didn’t check on him sooner, angry at the disgusting, raptor like actions of the landlady and her two cronies. Angry at the police who put a weapon used in a suicide back inside an empty unlocked house, angry because they notified the wrong next of kin and justified it by saying “It made more sense to notify  family that lived in state”, angry that because the officer in charge thought the house contained “junk”, he left a wallet and other items there for the taking, angry that the police seem more concerned about landlord rights than the fact that a man’s life possessions had been thrown out of windows, onto the ground, taken for resale, or simple trashed. I am extremely tempted to upload photos of my dear friends tossed belongings, strewn about  the yard like bird droppings on a sandy beach. I’d like nothing more than to share with anyone reading my blog the visual nightmare I encountered upon my arrival on  May 1.  It is only out of respect for my friends privacy that I don’t. Trust me when I say it’s hard. I’m angry at a family that leaves his earthly body in a cold drawer because their computer is “on the fritz”. Angry that they calmly told me on the telephone that they didn’t  have a correct phone number for him. Oh boo fucking hoo. He was listed in the area phone book ~ did anyone ever think to look??? I’m angry at myself for sometimes doubting him over the years when he told me stories of  emotionally distant family members. I know he wasn’t a liar or prone to embellishment but I thought perhaps a bit of self-pity was creeping in. How wrong I was.

I’m sad to the point that I’m becoming physically ill. I go two and three days without eating and  don’t even realize it. The fact that I’ll never enjoy a spirited conversation with him, never get an impromptu education about the mating habits of a particular bird, never discuss a book we’ve shared, never enjoy a day at the river watching the dogs swim and soaking up some sun. I’ll never get to do his laundry, watch as he and my husband play checkers or chess, listen to some of his government conspiracy theories , laugh at an email he forwarded me, or listen to him complain about the woes of still being tethered to dial-up internet service. We will never comfort each other as one of us mourns the loss of a much-loved aged pet. I miss that little smile that crept up despite his efforts to look stoic. It would start at the corner of his eyes and end with a partially upturned lip. Oh he tried to pretend it didn’t happen but I assure you it did. I’ll miss cooking meals that, although I never told my family, I used to cater around food he favored such as pork. My family can eat my cooking any time whereas he was never invited to anyone’s home for a meal thus I always tried to prepare something he would enjoy. I kept Trader Joe’s Peach Salsa on hand because I served it once and he really liked it. In the summer I kept Raspberry Twisted Tea in the refrigerator because I knew he enjoyed just one every now and then.

It never dawned on me what an integral part of our family he had become. The tapestry of his life was woven into ours as surely as if we’d known each other since childhood. I know that as  the sun will rise tomorrow  I will miss him for the rest of my days. I told him many times, both in person and in emails, that we cared about him, we considered him family and that our feelings for him would never change. Yes we may disagree at times, even get mad at one another, but in the grand scheme of life that’s irrelevant because when you truly care for another person, you don’t let minor misunderstandings or perceived slights come between you. I wonder if he believed me? I wonder if he knew how much I cared? How much my husband and daughter cared? I wonder if he knew that he held, and continues to hold, a very special place in our hearts? I can only hope that he did.

I have never been affected by anyone’s death as I have by his. Part of it is because of the way he died, part is the travesty that occurred following his suicide, and part is because I’ve never lost anyone that I loved as much as him before. Yes I mourned for my “parents” but because I spent my early years being abused in ways that one would not think possible, I wasn’t devastated or emotionally incapacitated by their deaths. I respected my parents, loved them to a degree, took care of them as they aged and became frail but I never truly mourned them the way I do him. I cried sincere tears, felt a sense of loss then processed my emotions and moved forward. With my friend’s death however I seem to be paralyzed with raw, seeping grief. I am stuck and don’t have the emotional resources to get past this because of the craziness still lingering. I am unable to attain any sense of acceptance or closure because he remains in the morgue, like a homeless person that no one steps forward to claim. It’s eating away at me bit by bit, day by day yet I am powerless to do anything. Today my husband and I briefly discussed attempting to get  “whatever” so that we could have him cremated the way he wanted. We decided that it would require a lawyer, a legal battle, and who knows what else. So for now, we sit and wait for the family to make a move and I call the Medical Examiner’s Office to see if he still remains there. The last thing the family conveyed to me is that one of the nephews was looking into having the VA pay part of his cremation costs. It took me less than (5) minutes to find the information; the government  will pay $300 towards final expenses and pay for interment in a VA cemetery along with a plain headstone – something our friend explicitly did not want.  

He was an immensely private person. He valued his privacy and for the most part cherished his time alone in a small but darling cabin in the woods with his beloved cats. Sounds rather simple and easy to do right? Not really because he was at the mercy of a “caretaker” who, as I mentioned in my previous post, thought it acceptable to enter my friend’s home whenever he was out. What a horrible way to live! After he could no longer afford the upkeep/repairs to his truck, we were his sole means of transportation. We would pick him up, take him to do errands, then bring him to our house for food, friendship and laughter. Inevitably after an hour he would get “antsy” because he feared for his cats and his personal property. Last Thanksgiving was an exceptionally good day for him, so much so that as we sat in the living room, enjoying the fire as we discussed which movie to watch, I asked if he was concerned about the caretaker. He told me no because he had devised a new plan to keep him out. Instead of the string trick which merely indicated if someone had entered the door, he had used his chainsaw to drop some rather heavy yet still moveable trees. Before getting into our car, he would drag the trees across the driveway about 1/4 mile before his cabin. He knew that the caretaker was physically incapable of moving the trees and even if by some miracle he succeeded in moving one, he wouldn’t be able to move them all. His  mobility was somewhat impaired and with the trees as a barrier, he would be unable to walk the 1/4 mile to my friend’s cabin. Ingenious idea but why? Why was he forced to such measures? He  rented that cabin from the scavenging landlady for 20+ years with a rent to own deal in place (the notarized paperwork which I had previously held and read was missing of course) yet he was subjected to  blatant disregard for his privacy and his home by her friend, the foul-mouthed foraging caretaker. I remember two winters in a row when I became stuck in his driveway because it had not been plowed. I saw all the other driveways plowed as I drove into the landlady’s cul-de-sac of sticks. Most of the cabins in her empire were rented by transients; there for a month or two then gone leaving a yard full of trash in their wake. It seemed that every time I drove down to my friends he had new neighbors. But by golly in winter they were all plowed except for him.  How utterly disgusting!

Today I retraced our friendship, thought about how it began and what made us so incredibly close. It didn’t take long before I remembered  we’d met over a little dog dressed in a Mrs. Claus dress. That wasn’t the pivotal point that drew us together however.  As our friendship flourished, it became defined by the fact  that we had both, at different periods in our lives, been accused of something we didn’t do. I can tell you without pause or reservation that being falsely accused is a terrible feeling, compounded by living in a small community where people you don’t even know are aware of your personal affairs. It bothered our friend so much that he wouldn’t sit in a coffee shop with us for fear of being scorned. When we took him to the store he was in and out in record time. My heart ached for him because he was such a kind and gentle soul who wanted nothing more than to live in peace. I asked him many times why he just didn’t move; get a fresh start either in another part of the state or in a different state. His answer was always the same ~ he had nowhere to go nor the resources to do it with. In time I devised a plan; a plan that I’m confident would have succeeded. I’d been working on it for nearly a year, consulting with outside sources.  In hindsight I should have told him but I chose not to because he would have objected. He was not only a private person but fiercely independent.

How I wish he could have held on just a little longer for I was almost there. Now my plan will never come to fruition but most of all, I won’t see him again ~ at least not in this world. I am so very sad and so completely lost.

I love you and I miss you dear friend. I fervently hope you are at peace.

 

Goodbye Dear Friend ~ My Incomprehensible Loss

Goodbye Dear Friend ~ My Incomprehensible Loss

Suicide ~ such a final word. It sends shivers through me. While I have battled intermittent depression at times I never had suicidal thoughts.  I suffered unspeakable abuse as a young child but to take my own life would give my abusers power over me and I refused to do that. They had often broken me physically and mentally but I would never let them rob me of growing up,  becoming a woman, a wife, a mother ~ or something in that order.

Now I am struggling in the wake of our dear friends death; brought on by his own hand.  Death is never easy but when it’s involves suicide a stark reality hits and makes us painfully aware of the black grip of depression that encircles a person with clinging tentacles. Some are able to escape, some hang on to the edge of the dark abysses by their fingertips. Tragically, many lose their hold and depression claims another life; another statistic . My dear friend is now one of those statistics.

It was common for a week to go by without hearing from him but as it entered the second week and both calls and email unanswered I began to worry. My German Shepherd  had been undergoing serious medical issues and treatment which required me to spend a lot of time several hours from home. Still, his emails should have appeared on my iPhone. I had my husband and daughter go to his house and check on him the morning of April 29, something we had done several times over the years when we didn’t hear from him. He suffered from depression and lived alone by choice in a cabin in the woods and except for rare peripheral contact with family in the next state, we were his family. We were his means of transportation, we shared holidays together at my house, I did his laundry, we exchanged canning jars and books and he helped with anything and everything as he was truly a jack of all trades. I loved him like the brother I’d always longed for. When I heard my daughter’s voice on the other end of the phone, I knew by the way she said “Mom”  that he was dead. I never dreamed however of the nightmare that would follow. When my family arrived on April 29 to check on him, they discovered his landlady of 20+ years present with a neighbor and another person, throwing my friends “life possessions” out of windows and doors. The landlady owned several cabins in a rural, heavily wooded area with my friend living at the end of the road. The neighbor was actually another long-term tenant whom the landlady had designated as “caretaker” for her empire of sticks. In reality, he is a foul-mouthed little man who would enter my friend’s home while he was out shopping. I know this because I watched as my friend set a string type trap on the door and sure as  bugs come out in May, when we returned from shopping the string would be broken. During the winter months the caretaker refused to plow the end of the road where my friend’s cabin was but never one to advocate or fight for himself, my friend chose to use his snowblower to clear the road. As my husband and daughter stood shocked while this trio of bandits reduced my dear friends life to piles on the grass, my daughter continued to talk to me on the cellphone. I told her to enter the house and if still there, take his computer, modem, family pictures, wallet, checkbook and anything that his family might want. My daughter watched as the landlady exited the cabin with a gun in her hand, walk to her car and place it in her trunk. She and the “caretaker” were discussing what they could sell for money and what needed to be trashed. My family went inside but were only able to salvage a few things: his computer and modem, military and other family pictures, and a few treasured books. They couldn’t find his wallet, checkbook or keys. This is how I learned that someone I loved dearly, who was part of our little self-made family, was no more.  My husband found his Purple Heart  lying on the ground under a pile of rain-soaked books, clothing and empty dresser drawers that the third person was heaving from the upstairs window. The landlady got on the phone with me and asked if I knew who the next of kin was. At this point I was crying hysterically but something in the back of my mind told me not to give her the information even though I knew who his family was. I told her I would have to look it up as it was on my laptop. She said the State Police didn’t know so she gave me her address and asked that when I found the name on my computer, pleased send it to her so she could inform them.  She handed the phone back to my daughter and she and her cohorts resumed their conversation of what to sell, what to toss, how to access his bank account etc. The caretaker and landlady began putting items in her car they deemed sellable and at this point my family, horrified, left.  From home I immediately contacted the State Police dispatch center and was told that the officer who was present the night my friend took his life and subsequently handling the case was due on at 4 PM that day and dispatch would have him contact me.  It was 1:15 PM. Within minutes my phone rang; the investigating officer was on the other end. He said they had not been able to notify family as they couldn’t find next of kin. I told him the same thing I told the landlady, that I needed to get it off my laptop when in reality it was right in front of me. I couldn’t think. I simply could not think. He asked me how long it would take for me to get the information and I said “one hour”. He said he’d call back and on the dot he did. I gave him the names of my friends two brothers but made a point of telling him that the brother who lived locally had been estranged from his entire family for over 30 years so to please notify the other brother who only lived a few hours away in the next state. I asked for details surrounding my friend’s suicide but since I wasn’t family he couldn’t share them with me. I kept at it because I wanted to know what happened, how our friend died. Through a game of verbal cat & mouse it was soon established that my friend had used a gun. Therein is the problem as my friend didn’t own a gun ~ at least I never knew he did. Only a crossbow. He was not a hunter and I always believed he only had the crossbow in case of an errant bear. He was a nature and animal lover so hunting wasn’t part of his world.
In hindsight if I had not been crying hysterically my thought processes would have kicked in and I would not have mentioned the estranged brother because all it did was muddy the already dirty waters.  When I called the out-of-state brother  two days later to offer our condolences, I actually wound up telling him of his brother’s  death. When I hung up the phone I was speechless as I couldn’t fathom why the State Police hadn’t made notification. Especially since my friend was still in the morgue nine days later.  I tossed and turned that night, waffling between sobbing, pangs of guilt, and anger. Guilt for letting almost two weeks pass before checking on him, anger at my friend for cutting his life short, anger at the unscrupulous  landlady and her “gang” and even anger at the State Trooper I had spoken to because of his careless, “easy come, easy go” attitude. As I struggled to sleep I suddenly had a gut feeling; I believed with all my heart that the trooper had indeed notified the brother – but the one who lived locally and was estranged from everyone for over a quarter of a century. I felt so strongly that I shared my theory with my family in the morning but they thought I was wrong.
On Sunday May 1,  I received a phone call from my friend’s adult niece. As soon as she said her name I recognized it from conversations I’d had with him. My mind recalled that she was one of his favorite nieces, that they both loved cats and that she frequently sent him cute cat greeting cards or cat stories from the paper. She told me that she and her cousin (the daughter of the out-of-state brother I had spoken to) would be driving up in the morning. I asked if they had heard from the State Police and she said no, something which was now concerning all of us. I agreed to accompany her to my friend’s house but warned her it was in shambles from the landlady and gang. My husband asked if it was a good idea for me to go to the house as I hadn’t been there since learning of the suicide but I said I would be fine. Little did I know. He wanted to accompany me but I insisted he stay home to take care of our medically needy German Shepherd.
As I waited at a local coffee shop for the nieces to arrive, I decided to act on my gut feeling. I called the local brother, identified myself as the “lover” of the deceased brother, and asked if he had been “contacted by the State Police”. He seemed to think it was funny for he chuckled and said yes, he’d been notified on Thursday. I continued with the charade, saying that I knew there were family dynamics that occurred long before I came into the picture and that I didn’t want to be involved. I told him I simply wanted to know where his brother’s wallet and checkbook were. He continued to laugh, saying he had no idea as he’d never set foot on the property where his brother lived for over 20 years. I asked if he had contacted the Medical Examiner’s Office only to be met with another laugh and a firm “no”.  I hung up without the slightest presence of manners for he was a revolting excuse for a human. The niece I had spoken to called me from the road saying they were about an hour out. She said she had called the State Police asking them to meet us at the house but they were reluctant to get involved in what they viewed as a civil matter  i.e. landlord/tenant rights. I had another gut feeling that this was going to get worse before better. The niece asked me about the wallet and keys. I told her my family couldn’t find them but that her uncle always had his wallet in his pocket and a key ring attached to his belt which held among other keys, the one to his post office box.  I  told her that her uncle had alternative investments in precious metals, more specifically, silver coins. He was “silver savvy”  with an impressive collection, a longtime member of ANA (American Numismatic Association). He would carefully show me his latest acquisition which in my coin ignorance I never fully grasped. He had mint sets, proof sets and slabs. He had a vast array of equipment such as gooseneck lamps, various microscopes, scales and coin holders. I can remember several times when he carefully handed me his extremely  heavy collection because the “caretaker” had been out and about with more frequency. I urged him to get a safe deposit box but he refused. The coin collection was one of the fist things I mentioned when I spoke to his out-of-state brother as my family had searched for it, knowing how much it meant to him. I was extremely relieved to learn that he had given it to his brother and sister-in-law towards the end of 2015. I also told his niece that in all the years I had known her uncle, he always wore a thick gold wedding band on his middle finger that was his late father’s.What I didn’t tell her was that I had called the Medical Examiner’s Office that morning, used another ruse, and learned that the gold ring was not on his hand nor in his possessions. While I waited for them to arrive Monday  I walked to his bank and asked to speak to a supervisor or manager. A woman met with me and I explained the situation. Again I was told “I can only speak to family and only when they have the appropriate court documents and death certificate”. I told her I understood but perhaps she could simply unofficially flag his account because his wallet, debit card and checkbook were missing. She said she couldn’t so I thanked her then stopped to ask for her card. I smiled and said I wanted a name to give the family when this went to court as I’m sure it would when his funds came up missing.. She flagged the account – unofficially. About 15 minutes later the two nieces arrived and followed my daughter and me to our friend’s cabin (it was the first time either of them had been there). When we pulled into the driveway I realized I should have listened to my husband. I’m usually a rational person but as I exited my daughter’s truck and walked into the back yard I began to scream. The entire scene was so surreal that it took a moment to register that the screams were coming from me. All I could do was walk around in horror, looking at the rain-soaked remnants of his life scattered about and piled up. I kept screaming “His life mattered” over and over. I was bending over, clutching my thighs. The next day I noticed that I’d clutched my thighs so hard that I’d left bruised “fingerprints” on the skin. We entered the house and immediately my daughter (who had been in law enforcement for 12 years until sidelined by an  assault) noticed that items that were there four days ago were now gone. His chain saws, toolbox, television, garden tools and collector type steins. The niece called the State Trooper who handled the case. He told her that there was only “junk” there that night. That the wallet was on the desk and after going through it and not finding an  “In Case of Emergency” card, he left it on the desk. He said there were a lot of DVD’s on the desk as well and the only thing of any value was a snowblower. Then she asked where the gun was that her uncle used to commit suicide. He told her he put it inside the house that night before he left. The light went off at the same time in both my daughter and my head. We motioned for the niece to ask the type of gun and when he told her, we had our answer. The gun the landlady walked out with was the suicide weapon which the family believes belonged to my friend’s late father, similar to the gun I have mounted on the wall that belonged to my late father. Relics of the past but still capable of wreaking disaster.  The niece called the trooper back and told him the snowblower, DVD’s, wallet and gun were all missing along with many other items. She began to tell him about everything that was missing, of how my family witnessed the landlady and “caretaker” removing items, that the landlady put the gun in her car along with items she said she could sell.  At my urging the niece asked why the house was left unlocked/unsecured the night of April 21 to which he replied there were no valuables, not even money in his wallet. Value, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. I treasure a book while others treasure an e-reader. It’s all selective. A young trooper who was on duty that day reluctantly came to the house at our request and as I repeatedly ticked off the missing items, he kept mentioning landlord rights. Finally one of the nieces told him that she had quickly researched the laws in our state and that a landlord has to give the family (14) days to go though the deceased’s belongings yet this landlady was seen removing items before the family was even told. The young trooper brought up that the police did not know who the next of kin was. I didn’t respond to his comment but in my opinion it was all excuses. We live in a small, rural community where nothing is sacred. All it would have taken is a quick glance inside the local phone book where the estranged brother (who had the same last name) was listed. A simple carefully worded phone inquiry by the police to determine if he was related to my friend. I guess they didn’t think of that.The young trooper and my daughter eventually went down the lane to the “caretakers” house. I was not surprised to learn that this “caretaker” had several expensive items that belonged to my friend in his truck and on his property including the snowblower. The police helped my daughter load them into her vehicle and as she prepared to leave, something on the man’s truck seat caught  her eye – it was my friends key ring that was always  attached to his belt and included his PO box key. She took it and gave to his niece when she and the young trooper returned. The trooper said it was “ok” that the neighbor had my friends possessions because he might have been “protecting” them. When I protested and then brought up the gun removed by the landlady, he started telling me about “landlord rights”. I asked if that included selling a deceased tenants personal effects before the family had been notified? Or do landlord rights mean they can take ownership of a gun used in a suicide? I was then told ” You need to stop talking and be quiet”. I asked why? Was it because I was pointing out how poorly the scene was left by the police? That the police had a well documented record of the many, many times my friend had called them to complain that this “caretaker” had entered his cabin while he was out shopping.  That I had been present when my friend set his little string traps and present when we returned and found them torn away. That just because he lived alone at the end of a dirt road on heavily wooded land his life mattered so why were they acting as if it didn’t? He never answered any of my questions. Before departing he told the niece that he had instructed the caretaker that he was not allowed on the property or allowed to remove anything for one week. That was on May 2, eleven days after my friend committed suicide. eight days after the wrong relative was notified, and three days after the correct relative was notified – by me. Perhaps I need a refresher course in math but somehow none of this adds up to a family being given two weeks to go through the deceased’s belongings.  Before he left the niece asked that the gun be returned and he said he would “pass it along”.  Because my friends key ring with his PO box key was found in the caretakers truck, I called the post office where my friend received his mail. I was told that it had been full “for a while but looks like he must have picked everything up”.   I told the postal worker that he was deceased as of April 21 and no pick ups should be made until the family arrived with legal documents. My dear friend purchased DVD’s online and in March was excited because he’d just received the final DVD in the Star Wars saga. I remember it distinctly because my husband took him to the post office then they both came to my church’s Warming Center where they played checkers and chess and volunteered in the clean up process every week. My friend was so happy that day and I remember thinking how good it was to see him smile. I am not a Star Wars fan but believe it is an extensive collection yet not a single DVD of any type nor electronic device was found in the cabin. He had purchased a state of the art printer  this spring – that too was missing.
A few days later I went to a local appointment. The person I had the appointment with asked why I looked so glum. I tried to hold back tears and said that a dear friend had committed suicide. Remember I mentioned in the last paragraph that we live in a small community? The person I had an appointment with not only knew of my friend’s suicide within days, but intimate details that could only have come from someone who had been present in an official capacity. Perhaps along with my math refresher course I need to brush up on confidentiality. To me, maintaining confidentiality,  both casual and legal, is of paramount importance for varied reasons but then perhaps when it involves a suicide it ceases to exist.
Today is May 11. I called this afternoon and our friend is still in the morgue. His next of kin (brother) previously told me he can’t do anything because their computer is “on the fritz”. I cannot comprehend this on any level. Our friend, on several occasions,  said that he wanted to be cremated to both me and then again to my husband. I informed his out-of-state brother of my friends end of life wishes. I also gave him the name and number of two local crematorium that I see used frequently. My friend did not want his  ashes, interred. He did not want the VA involved in his end of life wishes, despite being in the USN with an honorable discharge. I never said he didn’t have quirks  ~ who doesn’t? I gave all of this information to the next of kin, his out-of-state brother and his sister-in-law. They are somewhat “well off”, my dear friend wanted a very simple no fills cremation. In this state the average no frills cremation is $1,000.  So again, why does my friends earthly body remain in a cold metal drawer nearly three weeks after his death? He had a notebook on his person which contained a generic suicide note. There is also a small sealed envelope that appears to have a paper inside. The envelope has my full legal name on the front but I am not allowed to have it as I am not family.  I have the legal rights of a turnip. He was my friend. He was a good friend to my husband and a good friend to my daughter. He adored my animals as I did his. He was a kind but tortured soul, a gentle and loving man who had been misjudged and mistreated by society so he withdrew. Coming from the ashes of  horrific childhood abuse, my primary coping mechanism is withdrawal. I take a step back from life for a few days, read a book or two,  put my thoughts in perspective and rejoin the living. My friend did not come from an abusive childhood but had suffered in a way similar to me so we shared a common denominator. We were also both very passionate people who loved animals more than we did many people we met. We shared a voracious love of reading. He was never boring as he could carry a conversation in just about any subject. His intelligence never ceased to amaze me. He loved the outdoors, the beauty of a bird in flight or bee pollination. He treasured Mother Earth and all her splendors. He had a sarcastic wit that was as sharp as an ice forged German-made knife yet not a devious or dishonest bone in his body. I’m not sure if I can define the single event that started our friendship, but I will be forevermore changed because of it. My biggest regret is that I had not met him 20 years ago because he brought so much kindness, joy and compassion to my life.  His chair at my dining room table will always be his. I will miss him until the day I die. I think of him constantly. The hauntingly beautiful wind chimes he gave me for my birthday last year have taken on a new meaning. I wish that I could talk to him again, to laugh at his emails about the government, listen to him speak softly in a misty voice about losing one of his precious girls. I’d give anything to wash his clothes one more time, or have him hand me some fresh produce he grew in his beautiful garden. And if I were to see him tomorrow, I wouldn’t ask him “why” but instead tell him how very loved he was and still is. To many it now appears he was just the odd man in the cabin at the end of the road but to my family he was so much more. I could write pages and more pages yet never capture the essence of this dear soul. He was a much-loved friend. His life had value and merit yet at this moment, I feel as if I am the only one who recognizes that. Tomorrow will be three weeks since his death and still no arrangements. The last I heard a nephew was reaching out to the VA to see if they would help contribute towards the cremation fee, even knowing that he expressed no involvement by the VA.

I’ve done the religious processing but it has not helped as I continue to flounder. I’m supposed to accept that his essence has departed this world and his earthly body is just a mere vessel. Why must we, as civilized people then, show no respect for these “earthly’ bodies?

This is tearing me apart and I am unable to process my grief in a constructive, healing way because I feel as if my friend’s life is being invalidated. He was a kind gentle person with a true love of animals. He was extremely intelligent and well read. He was a war hero. He was a son, a brother, an uncle and a beloved friend. Does none of that matter?

The aftermath of my friends suicide on April 21 has been marked by what I consider a complete lack of respect, compassion and authority. I’m at a pivotal point in life as a legal matter that started in 2012 is finally coming to trial in June yet at this moment, on this night, I can say without a doubt that I do not have the emotional stamina to endure it. Yet once again, we cannot get a continuance because he was not “family”. Even though his family in the legal sense had only seen him very briefly over the years with some never setting foot in his house. His out-of-state brother and sister-in-law told me they did not have his correct phone number. It was listed in the phone book! He spent holidays with us, movies, summer swimming and gardening, fall hikes, rescue trips out-of-state to pick up dogs transported up from southern kill shelters, He trusted me with his coins, his passwords, his mail. Yet I remain odd man out and I cannot seem to move forward. Even when my own parents died, a stark reminder of y early abuses, I handled the details with dignity because at the end of the day, I have to live with the consequence of my actions. Now, I cannot act, I have no legal say, the authorities won’t talk to me, so I suffer inside each day. I reached out to someone who specializes in grief support but the earliest appointment is the middle of June. The only thing I know for sure is that my friends tragic death on April 21 has been marked by what I consider a complete lack of respect, compassion and authority by nearly everyone involved and it’s killing me.

His life truly mattered…