Paul Umbaugh recently made a dramatic decision that will likely bring his life to an end. He served in the U.S. Armed Forces under President Reagan in the 1980s and has laid dozens of his fellow comrades to rest over the years, but nothing could’ve prepared him for the ordeal he was about to experience while seeking treatment at the VA.
Umbaugh needs a new kidney – badly. He has been waiting for a transplant for months due to delays in the VA system. The 61-year-old veteran finally found a donor from the same guard unit he served with all those years ago in November after posting about his condition on Facebook.
“It was definitely amazing because it was like within 30 seconds,” Umbaugh said. “I figured something would happen right away since I have someone who wants to be a donor for me.”
He thought he was in the clear, but he said it took the VA center months to contact the donor and schedule the procedure. His wife Amanda said that Umbaugh tried to speed things along, but the staff at the VA kept asking him the same questions every time he called.
“Someone that is so sick?” Amanda said. “Nobody knows what’s going on with him and he has to explain it every time. Over and over.”
Tired of waiting, Umbaugh finally contacted a civilian doctor who agreed to perform the procedure outside the VA system. The VA agreed to pay for the cost of Umbaugh’s surgery, but the donor was asked to pay for their medical expenses out of pocket.
“You have someone who can save my life,” Umbaugh said. “But you’re telling me they would have to pay to do it.”
Umbaugh said he decided to stop working with the VA after they finally told him his transplant surgery wouldn’t be scheduled until next year.
“I have a donor. I have someone who can give me a kidney,” Umbaugh said. “Why would I have to wait until January to get it done?”
He prayed with his wife before deciding to go off treatment altogether. The doctors told him he had just 10 days to live once he went off dialysis.
“I’m supposed to be dead by Thursday,” Umbaugh said earlier this week.
He has chosen to accept death rather than continue his treatment as a way of exposing flaws in the VA transplant system.
“I’m sure it could save a lot of people’s lives if they knew what was actually going on,” Umbaugh said. “I hope this will make a difference. Something has to change.”
His son Paul Umbaugh IV said his family is supporting his decision even if it means saying goodbye.
“At the end of the day it’s definitely his decision whether or not he keeps doing the dialysis and we support him stopping it,” the younger Umbaugh said. “We’re happy he has the faith to make that decision. The whole situation in general is just frustrating and sad.”
This isn’t the first time the VA has come under fire for failing to provide adequate care. The department has been plagued with administrative problems for decades.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, “waitlisted VA-insured patients had a lower adjusted likelihood of transplantation compared with patients with private insurance.”
But William Gunnar defended the VA transplant system in a recent article in the American Journal of Transportation.
“The VA Transplant Program is long standing, well resourced, and shown to provide timely, high-quality, and comprehensive transplant care and services to our Nation’s Veterans,” Gunnar wrote.
VA spokesperson Kim Antos said the VA and private sector transplants are monitored by the same organization. She also confirmed that the department is looking into Umbaugh’s case.
Since going public, Umbaugh’s story has attracted national attention.
Florida Congressman Gus Bilarakis’ Deputy Chief of Staff Summer Blevins reached out to Umbaugh on Thursday, offering to contact VA Secretary Denis McDonough on his behalf “given the time sensitive nature of your case.”
In her email, Blevins told Umbaugh “our policy team would also like to look into the barriers you have encountered to see if there is a way that we can prevent this from occurring with other veterans.”
Jay Wolfson, USF Public Health and Medicine Professor, added that Umbaugh’s situation isn’t unique. He said that administrative delays, excessive red tape, and other failures often prevent veterans from accessing the care they need in time.
“Sometimes you need to fire a shot across the bow and the VA suddenly wakes up and says we need to do something about this case,” Wolfson said.
He also had the following advice for Umbaugh and other veterans waiting for care: “Don’t give up just yet,” Wolfson said. “I know it can be painful and frustrating, but you’ve got a lot to live for. You’re still a young guy.”
When pressed for comment, Antos responded, “The VA transplant team has been in close contact with Mr. Umbaugh, listened to his concerns, provided education on solid organ donor processes and additional support options.”
“He continues to be followed by his primary providers and should his care decisions change regarding transplantation, he can absolutely reach out to his care team,” she said.