SAN DIEGO -- Army veteran Chad Cavanaugh fondly remembers his duty as a sentry guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
"It was an incredible honor,” Cavanaugh said. “One of my favorite places on earth."
FOX 5 first met the comic book illustrator at last summer’s Comic-Con, where the 43-year-old was standing proud after receiving a special invitation to what he called “the Super Bowl of the comic world.”
But in the weeks that followed, his excitement turned to despair when life threw him a painful curveball.
“I’m no longer a husband to my wife, I’m no longer a father to my daughters and I am pissed,” Cavanaugh said.
He’s outraged over treatment he has received from doctors at the Veterans Affairs hospital in La Jolla during the past three months for severe leg, back and hip pain.
"On August 7, I walked in there on my own power and today, I’m in a wheelchair,” Cavanaugh said. “I cannot walk because of this inefficiency.”
Cavanaugh believes the VA's slow process and conservative treatment protocol by at least one physician made his sciatica worse.
"He's kind of speaking to me as if somewhat of an inconvenience,” Cavanaugh said of one of his physicians. “He's not wanting to really help. He's kind of waiting to send me away to do some nerve testing and telling me to come back in five weeks. I said, ‘well I'm in this horrible pain. What am I supposed to do for five weeks?’ and he said, ‘deal with it.’”
Since then, he has had several X-rays and MRIs to examine his hip and back. He has been given some injections and prescribed pain medications, but nothing has eased his misery.
"My knee feels like its being crushed, my calf and my ankle feels like its being crushed and that's as we speak right now,” Cavanaugh said. “I feel like I have a knife jammed in my hip.”
He was also offered physical therapy sessions but rejected them because he insists he could be cured with an epidural shot to his spine.
“I'm done being strung along,” Cavanaugh said. “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 am done with it."
Dr. Kathleen Kim, VA San Diego's Acting Chief of Staff, reviewed Cavanaugh's file for FOX 5 News. She says she is sorry it has gotten to this stage.
"Conservative methods are the standard treatment for sciatica and the majority of people get better on conservative treatment. Unfortunately, Mr. Cavanaugh did not."
Dr. Kim believes the VA as a whole has made considerable progress in dealing with complaints and case backlogs. She says she will look into the interaction Cavanaugh had with one surgeon and follow up.
"We welcome the opportunity to improve,” Kim said. “We want to deliver the best quality health care to every single veteran and obviously we did not do our best in this case. I'm sorry Mr. Cavanaugh has gone from walking to being unable to walk and to be in great pain and we are going to take care of him."
Still, Cavanaugh remains optimistic about his immediate future.
“I don’t know when I’m going to walk again. I am going to walk again.”
After all he’s been through, Cavanaugh offers this mixed review of his VA hospital experience with a very strong message.
"The VA is filled with fantastic people that are on fire to help veterans,” Cavanaugh said. “But once you reach a certain level of need, it breaks down. I am tired of veterans hurting and not being taken care of. And I will stand up for them. And I will fight for them, because this is not right. Tell me whose door I have to kick down. Tell me whose face I have to get in…’cause I’ll do it.”
On Thursday, Cavanaugh had surgery to fix a bulging disc that had been putting pressure on his spine.
When FOX 5 Anchor Phil Blauer visited Cavanaugh Friday, he was surprised to be greeted by him standing at the door.
"I'm walking again so it feels pretty good," Cavanaugh said, adding that there is "a little bit of residual pain still." He said when he returned home from his surgery Friday, he was able to walk to his room.
He said when he returned home from his surgery Friday, he was able to walk to his room.
"The surgery went really, really well," Cavanaugh said. "The surgical team was fantastic. The nurses and everybody involved were right there every step of the way. My wife was right there. Every time I opened my eyes, there she was."