SAN DIEGO - Army Veteran Chad Cavanaugh is thrilled to be standing tall and pain-free.
A year ago, the 44-year-old married father of three's life was much different. His 6-feet, 5-inches tall frame was stuck in a wheelchair and he blamed inefficiency at the San Diego VA hospital in La Jolla for his condition.
"I'm done being strung along. I'm done being told to go to another appointment, another consultation. Here take some pills. Here's a crisp high five. See ya next time. I'm done with it," Cavanaugh told FOX 5 a year ago. "I'm no longer a husband to my wife, no longer a father to my daughters and I am pissed."
Cavanaugh's interview with FOX 5 last year got the attention of the VA regarding patient care protocol.
"I got the help that I needed. I was fortunate to meet you. I was fortunate that you came in and took on my story and it got the ball rolling," he said.
Dr. Sina Pourtaheri is the VA's Director of Orthopedic Spine surgery. He said he's grateful he restored Cavanaugh's quality of life.
"I didn't realize how tall and big Chad is," said Pourtaheri. "When he came in and saw me right after the surgery, all of a sudden he's standing up there like an incredible hulk."
When Chad sees his old wheelchair he said it reminds him of pain and hopelessness, a bad time and a nightmare.
"I ran into a couple of bad apples," Cavanaugh said. "But the VA stepped up right away. Within a week of us meeting, I was on the surgery table."
VA Director Dr. Robert Smith said he's learned a lot from their mistakes with Cavanaugh's case. Smith said they have improved, but the system is still far from perfect.
"I'd say there are areas we need to work on," Smith said. "Especially in the emergency room where we have some wait time problems there. But in terms of getting patients into care, we've made a lot of strides."
These days, Cavanaugh continues his passion for comic book art and being the family man he always wanted to be.
"I can do all the things that I wasn't able to do," Cavanaugh said. "Taking the kids, spending time with them walking wherever they want to do...spending time with my wife, taking care of her, anything she needs done."
Cavanaugh told FOX 5 that 14 weeks after his surgery, he and his wife were driving in downtown San Diego and happened upon a traffic accident near the police department on Broadway. He said he ran over to a car that was on fire and saved a female driver who was trapped in the burning car.
He said it would have been impossible if he had still be stuck in the wheelchair.
"The car was filling with smoke," Cavanaugh said. "I leaned in to get her out, unbuckle her and just from that brief time my throat was destroyed for three or four days. So she would have easily asphyxiated in there."